House Speaker Mike Turzai proposes school voucher program for Harrisburg City Schools 

By: - August 27, 2019 1:33 pm

Pa. House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny (“Friends of Mike Turzai” / WikiMedia Commons)

(This story was updated at 2:33 p.m. with comments from Gov. Tom Wolf’s office and the Pennsylvania State Education Association, along with Rep. Patty Kim, D-Dauphin, and Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin.)

The top Republican in Pennsylvania’s state House announced on Tuesday a plan to create a new school voucher “pilot program” for students in the Harrisburg City School District, which was placed under state control this year in an attempt to rescue it from financial and academic ruin.

House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, wants to require the Harrisburg City School District to award scholarships of at least $4,100 to children who wish to enroll in private or other public schools, according to a memo he circulated to colleagues on Tuesday.

Turzai’s yet-to-be-introduced proposal also calls on the state to provide an additional $3,000 to each scholarship, bringing the total value to at least $7,100 — a sum that “will provide affordability for Harrisburg children to attend a school of their choice in the region,” Turzai writes in the memo. Area public schools would have to opt-in to enroll Harrisburg students. 

Harrisburg district administrators and union leaders could not be immediately reached for comment on Turzai’s proposal on Tuesday. 

A voucher program tailored to an individual school district would be unprecedented in Pennsylvania, which already supports a growing charter sector and offers private school scholarships through its Educational Improvement Tax Credit program.

Turzai has been one of the General Assembly’s biggest boosters of EITC scholarships, sponsoring legislation this spring to double the program’s funding to more than $200 million. 

That bill was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, but the EITC budget did increase by $15 million in June as lawmakers scrambled to pass the 2019-20 state budget.

Wolf’s spokesperson told the Capital-Star on Tuesday that the governor would oppose Turzai’s latest proposal, too.

“Governor Wolf opposes voucher programs that divert tax dollars from public schools to private schools,” Wolf spokesperson J.J. Abbott said. “This voucher program would not help all students, especially those that could not make up the difference between the voucher and private school tuition,” he added.

Reached for comment Tuesday, state Rep. Patty Kim, D-Dauphin, called Turzai’s proposal a “distraction,” and that officials need to stay focused on righting the district’s financial ship.

“We have to focus all our energy on getting the district back on its feet,” she told the Capital-Star.

In a statement to the Capital-Star, state Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin, said he “[appreciated] … Turzai’s interest in helping Harrisburg’s students, which is a goal we share.

“I am a strong supporter of empowering parents and students to choose the educational opportunity that best meets their needs, so, while I haven’t been able to review his proposed legislation in detail yet, I certainly believe it is worthy of further consideration and I look forward to it coming to the Senate,” DiSanto’s statement reads.

Turzai in the memo said that “state-involved scholarship” initiatives are already operating across the country, pointing as examples to programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Racine, Wisconsin. 

“It is time for a different approach to fix underperforming and financially distressed schools,” Turzai wrote. “By allowing Harrisburg families to choose the right education environment for each student, we can finally resolve the decades-long failure to provide an adequate education to Harrisburg children.”

In June, Education Secretary Pedro Rivera petitioned a Dauphin County judge to put the capital city school district under the control of a state-appointed receiver. The move came at the request of Harrisburg’s local and state elected officials, after district administrators resisted compliance with a state audit.

Receiver Janet Samuels, who once worked as the district’s state-appointed oversight officer, took the helm of the district in July. She quickly ousted the district’s administration, including Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney, and brought in her own leadership team.

Since then, teachers and parents have expressed newfound optimism for the long-struggling school district, which perennially ranks among the lowest-performing school districts in the state.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the statewide union that represents Harrisburg school employees, fears a program like the one Turzai is proposing would jeopardize the district’s fledgling success.

Harrisburg has been in receivership for all of 2 months now,” said PSEA spokesman Chris Lilienthal. “Draining [money] from the district is only going to undermine the progress we’re starting to see and set the district back.”

The Capital-Star’s John L. Micek contributed reporting to this story. 

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.