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JT board opposed to tuition voucher senate bill

Published March 01. 2011 05:00PM

Jim Thorpe school board voted at Monday night's meeting to adopt a resolution opposing state Senate Bill 1 after Superintendent Barbara Conway gave a presentation to the board and the public on the proposed legislation.

Senate Bill 1 is The Opportunity Scholarship and Educational Improvement Tax Credit Act introduced by state Senators Jeffrey E. Piccola and Anthony H. Williams.

This bill "establishes the tuition voucher system for public to public school students or public to private school students," stated Conway.

The bill will be voted on at the Senate Education Committee today. If passed at this meeting it will move on to the full Senate and proceed from there.

If voted in, this bill will start off as a three-year phase. The first year, which would be the 2011-2012 school year, would allow low-income students attending a persistently lowest-achieving school to apply for tuition vouchers for another public or nonpublic school. Families that are considered low-income have an income less than the federal poverty level.

Conway said that persistently lowest-achieving schools are "any public elementary or secondary school which is achieving within the lowest measured group of five percent on the most recent assessment for which data is posted on PDE, in other words the PSSA's." Schools in the lowest 5 percent in the state in terms of PSSA scores are considered persistently-lowest achieving.

Jim Thorpe Area School District, Conway said, is not a persistently-lowest achieving school.

The second year, which would be the 2012-2013 school year, would allow the students from the previous year and any nonpublic, low-income students that reside in the attendance boundary of a persistently lowest-achieving school to apply for tuition vouchers. The third year and every year after will allow all low-income students to apply for tuition vouchers regardless of which school they are in.

"Vouchers can be used by students to attend either nonpublic or private schools. The voucher amount is 100 percent of the commonwealth share of the resident school district total revenue for average daily membership of the prior school year. In other words, it is what a school would get from the state as subsidy that would be the voucher amount," said Conway.

If the bill is passed, eligible families can apply to the Education Opportunity Board for the tuition voucher. If accepted, the family receives a voucher check to give to the new school that accepts the voucher student. Conway goes on to mention that the bill doesn't say Pennsylvania schools have to accept voucher students. Parents could apply to a school, but the school could turn them down.

"If a parent decides to enroll their child, get the voucher, and decides to pull that student out of the school, they (the parents) would be refunded. However, they have to give the money back to the state. Nowhere does the bill say that the school from which that money is taken gets that money back. They don't," said Conway. If a voucher is refunded the money does not go back to the district it came from, but goes to the state to be put into the Excess Scholarship Fund.

Conway listed concerns the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) and the Jim Thorpe School Board have about Senate Bill 1. One of which is that there is no follow up of a voucher student. Once the student goes to a new school there is nothing to measure his or her new progress. Another concern is that there is no consistent evidence that vouchers work. Studies have been done on voucher systems, but these studies show that only some students make progress while many don't.

Another concern involves the state subsidy. If a school district is considered persistently lowest-achieving, it could use that money to advance in education. However, the money will be lost from the persistently lowest-achieving schools to become tuition vouchers for another school. The school districts that need money to advance and strengthen will keep losing money.

After Conway's presentation the board voted to adopt a resolution to oppose Senate Bill 1. The board will be sending this resolution to oppose the bill to Pennsylvania legislators. The bill will be voted on at the Senate Education Committee today and if passed, still has numerous steps to go. The board wants the legislators to have this resolution of opposition before the bill makes it to the House of Representatives.

Board President Michael Huber stated to the public how important it is for students, parents, and taxpayers to contact their legislators so the public school system can be protected.

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