PSBA Executive Director Testifies on Tuition Vouchers Before Senate Education Committee

HARRISBURG – In testimony before the Senate Education Committee Wednesday, PSBA Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel called taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers unaccountable, unaffordable, unpopular, unproven and unconstitutional.

Senate Bill 1, titled the Opportunity Scholarships and Educational Improvement Tax Credit bill, proposes the use of tax dollars to pay a student’s tuition to attend a nonpublic or private school.

In his testimony, Gentzel said, “The voucher system implemented by SB 1 is unaccountable because there is nothing in the bill that would require any follow-up on the progress of students who enter into nonpublic or private schools using a voucher.” He went onto say, “The lack of any public accountability begs this question: If the goal of SB 1 is to help students in failing schools improve their education, why is there no requirement in SB 1 to measure their academic progress once they are in a nonpublic or private school?”

PSBA also believes the tuition voucher system implemented by SB 1 is unaffordable to the state, to schools and to students who will remain in the lowest achieving public schools.

“It is important for the public to know that not all of these funds are coming from the state’s share of funding to districts; a significant portion of the cost will have to come from new revenue or revenue that is reduced elsewhere in the budget,” said Gentzel. “These costs are occurring at a time when the state faces what could be a $4 billion deficit.”

Gentzel illustrated the unpopularity of tuition vouchers by citing the results of a recent poll designed and conducted by Terry Madonna Opinion Research that showed that two out of three Pennsylvanians oppose giving public money to parents so they can send their children to a private school of their own choosing.

If improved academics are the goal of SB 1, Gentzel said, “There are no independent studies on voucher programs that show consistent academic improvement in the performance of students who use tuition vouchers to transfer from a public school to a nonpublic or private school. We believe that if the General Assembly wants to spend $150 million or more of taxpayer dollars, particularly given the economic situation, that money should go to programs that have been proven to work and should not come at the expense of those who are ineligible or do not choose to participate in a given program.”

Finally, Gentzel noted the unconstitutionality of SB 1.  Voucher advocates often claim that the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, upholding the Cleveland, Ohio voucher program put an end to any question about the constitutionality of voucher programs. They argue by extension that the U.S. Supreme Court decision settles things under the Pennsylvania Constitution. However, the state’s Constitution is far more restrictive when it comes to government aid to education or religious schools.

In conclusion, Gentzel said, “We are all in agreement on the need to provide all school children in Pennsylvania with a quality education. PSBA believes that all students should be entitled to a quality public education.  The best way to resolve the issue and the only way to ensure that 100% of students get a quality education is to implement a focused program that has as its goal the improvement of these buildings.”

Examples of schools that have made a difference in the hardest hit communities take into account “both effective, achievement-oriented schools and strong social and community services to support the educational achievement of children in poverty,” Gentzel said.

“Let’s not spend the money on a program that will benefit a few and leave the rest in a worse situation,” Gentzel said. “Let’s spend the money where it will do the most good.”          

PSBA is a nonprofit statewide association of public school boards, pledged to the highest ideals of local lay leadership for the public schools of the commonwealth. Founded in 1895, PSBA was the first school boards association established in the United States.

The full testimony can be found at www.psba.org

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