Pa. House GOP splits, votes down vouchers for closed schools, mask requirements

Another vote on the measure could be coming in the future, but Republican leadership hasn’t said when

By: - September 30, 2021 7:23 am

LOUISVILLE, KY – MARCH 17: A teacher walks among the the masked students sitting in a socially distanced classroom session at Medora Elementary School on March 17, 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky. Today marks the reopening of Jefferson County Public Schools for in-person learning with new COVID-19 procedures in place. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

The Pennsylvania House voted down an amendment to an already controversial school voucher bill this week that would have allowed parents to send their kids to private school with taxpayer money due to either a COVID-19 outbreak or due to their opposition to mitigation efforts — such as a mask order.

Tuesday’s 94-105 vote, marked a rare defeat for the Republican-controlled chamber’s leadership, which usually does not bring bills to the House floor unless they know they have the votes for them to pass.

Eighteen GOP lawmakers, mostly from the Philadelphia suburbs, voted against the bill, underlining the complicated politics when two heated issues — COVID-19 and school choice — collide.

The original bill offered to give any student whose school does not offer full-time, in-person instruction a tuition voucher worth the average per-student state subsidy for their district. 

The bill is not restricted to just COVID-19-related school closings. And there are no limits on the number of vouchers that could be issued.

In a memo, the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Carrie DelRosso, R-Allegheny, said that it would “ensure every child in every family in every community has equal opportunity to attend the school that’s best for them.”

But public education advocates and the state’s biggest teachers unions, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, pointed out in a letter to House Republican leadership last week that the bill would punish school districts for tackling COVID-19 in the classroom.

DelRosso’s proposal, the letter said, would “cost school districts millions of dollars just because they follow medical and scientific health guidance to protect students, school staff, and their families from COVID-19.”

This debate was further complicated by House Education Chairman Curt Sonney, R-Erie, who offered the amendment that specifically targeted COVID-19 outbreaks and mitigation efforts.

Sonney told the Capital-Star that the vote showed that his amendment was a “work in progress.”

But “if for any reason, a parent just isn’t comfortable sending their child [to school] under the circumstance, and they’d prefer they went to a different school,” Sonney said, that parent should have a second option that isn’t public school.

In its current form, DelRosso’s bill, Sonney added, was “not operational.” His amendment also would have restricted DelRosso’s bill to the 2021-22 school year, and only for COVID-19 related shutdowns.

Still, Sonney’s modified voucher proposal was not agreeable to a number of his Republican colleagues, such as state Rep. Tom Mehaffie, R-Dauphin.

Mehaffie told the Capital-Star that the bill and the amendment was too open-ended for his support. Specifically, he raised concerns about the lack of limits on the number of vouchers that could be issued.

“It can’t be that way. It has to be precise and on point,” Mehaffie said, adding: “Maybe its intention is good, but it’s not well thought out.”

Rep. Craig Staats, R-Bucks, was one of just four Republicans from Philadelphia and its collar counties to vote for the amendment. He told the Capital-Star that the purpose of Sonney’s amendment was to “keep kids in school,” so he supported it.

Staats added he wasn’t surprised many of his suburban Philadelphia colleagues voted against the proposal, and said he would not be comfortable with the underlying bill without some limits on the number or time limit to issue the vouchers.

The conflicts at play in Sonney’s amendment and DelRosso’s underlying bill — between public and private education, and how to respond to the pandemic — join one long running debate with a more current flash point.

On school choice, efforts from the Republican-controlled General Assembly to advance bills expanding private school scholarships are frequently met by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto pen.

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Otherwise, internal Republican dissent might block similar proposals, such as a 2019 bill from former Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny to allow students in Harrisburg’s struggling school district to receive vouchers.

Meanwhile, policy makers across the political spectrum have largely agreed keeping kids in school is a top priority after the COVID-19 pandemic took more than a year of in-person learning away from students, especially students of color.

And according to WHYY-FM, while many school districts are offering virtual learning options, most are open for in-person instruction. 

That desire for in-person learning motivated Wolf’s K-12 mask mandate, which applies to all students, staff, and faculty at public and private schools alike.

In change of heart, Wolf admin uses health powers to order K-12 mask mandate in Pa.

However, immediately after Wolf issued the order, legislative Republicans pushed back in hearings, and through an obscure committee that could force Wolf to reimplement his mask order through the state’s regulatory process, which could take months.

Legislation from the Republican-controlled General Assembly has been slower coming. A state Senate panel approved a bill this week to allow parents to opt their kids out of the mask order. It now heads to the full body.

The Senate bill also would have to get through the state House, which declined to take up any one of nine separate amendments offered by Sonney earlier this month to block Wolf’s mask order. Such action was also blocked due to internal divisions.

House Republicans already have filed a motion to reconsider the amendment, which could happen at any time. House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, did not offer a timeline Wednesday for the next vote.

“We are always looking for opportunities to try to get enough votes to pass any bill,” he said.

House Republicans punt on school masks vote after returning early to address it

In an email, House Democratic spokesperson Bill Patton said that the voucher vote was an example of “how much time and effort Republican leaders have wasted on bills that serve no purpose and have no chance of ever becoming law.”

“This is a majority party without a governing plan and a substantial number of their own legislators are clearly troubled by that,” Patton said. “Really, what do they even stand for anymore?”

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is the Capital-Star's House reporter. He previously covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter. You can reach him at 845-891-4306.

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