Pa. House panel advances bill authorizing vouchers for Harrisburg schools

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A plan to let public school students use school vouchers to attend private schools in Harrisburg advanced out of the House Education Committee Monday.

The bill sponsored by House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, calls for half of the state’s per pupil contribution to the troubled Harrisburg School District — a little more than $4,000 — to go to from the school district to students who seek a private education.

The capital city’s school district has roughly 7,736 students, according to the state Department of Education.

The proposed voucher would be equal to the state’s annual per student appropriation to the district, split evenly between the school and the state.

A memo from Turzai’s office estimates that the Harrisburg district vouchers would be worth roughly $8,200 per-student.

The proposal would not pull funding from the school district for losing students to a private school. That means the bill would require new funding to cover the potential costs, which House Education Committee Chairman Curt Sonney, R-Erie, acknowledged.

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

But Sonney pointed to other failing districts that receive extra state funding over the last few years.  If districts such as Erie could get an extra $14 million, Sonney argued, then the state could cover Harrisburg’s voucher costs.

“I think this is very much in line with other special appropriations made to other failing school districts,” Sonney said.

The bill passed by a slim, one- vote margin, 13-12, as two moderate Republicans defected and voted against the bill with all Democrats.

Rep. Patty Kim, the Democrat who represents Harrisburg, opposed the bill, especially after an amendment made the program permanent.

Looking at the extra funding the state was willing to invest in vouchers, Kim thought that there are better uses for public money in public schools.

“Let’s use these funds that would go to voucher and redirect them to special needs and English language learners,” Kim said.

She also questioned why any money should be taken away from a district on shaky financial footing. Recently, the district said it was in $2.6 million in debt.

The district could lose an additional $3.2 million if 10 percent of students leave for private schools, or $6 million if 20 percent of students leave, according to a letter from the district.

Because students living within the district already going to private school are also eligible for the vouchers, 612 students would already be eligible for a voucher, the letter said.

Turzai and the bill’s other advocates — including the free-market Commonwealth Foundation and Democratic Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse — have pitched it as a chance to get students out of a school district with well documented problems, from poor graduation rates to bad financials to an ongoing FBI investigation.

Because state funding stays constants, the funding per- student for the district will increase. This also lets the school make investments into new programs to increase the quality of education, allies say.

Critics fired back that this argument doesn’t take into account fixed costs, such as heating or staffing expenses.

The bill forbids schools from adding any conditions to the vouchers, such as mandating that private schools accept special needs students.

As written, the bill would only apply to Harrisburg — but it could potentially apply to other city school districts in Pennsylvania if they enter receivership.

Turzai has historically been a vocal advocate for school choice, including funding private school scholarships with a state tax credit as well as allying with charter schools.