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School choice bill promised for next state Legislature

HARRISBURG -- Two lawmakers pledged yesterday to introduce legislation early next year to authorize tuition vouchers for school choice in Pennsylvania.

Republican Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and Democratic Sen. Anthony Williams of Philadelphia, who touted the issue in his unsuccessful run for governor, plan to co-author a bill they say would help parents and students fed up with public education.

"The nation is in trouble," said Williams, a panelist at a forum sponsored by the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based policy group. "The nation is losing a war because academically it's falling behind, woefully behind."

School choice would save taxpayers money, reduce dropout rates, cut prison costs and give Pennsylvania students a chance to be competitive globally, he said.

The state spends on average $13,000 per child in the K-12 system each year, said Nate Benefield, a foundation analyst. The money isn't spent only in classrooms. Much of it is invested in buildings, stadiums and other facilities, he said.

Under the school choice concept, parents could take a portion of state spending as a tuition voucher to enroll a child in another public, parochial, private, charter or cyber school.

"The dollar follows the parent and child," said Jeffrey Coleman, a former Republican House member who moderated the discussion.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association believes school choice is far from the panacea supporters suggest.

"Tax-funded tuition vouchers do not save the public schools money," PSEA spokesman Wythe Keever said. "In fact, the opposite is true. Voucher programs typically come at the expense of public schools, in the form of reduced state appropriations for K-12 public education."

The primary beneficiaries are students who never attended public schools, he said.

The prospects for school choice improve with Republicans controlling the Legislature next year and Gov.-elect Tom Corbett favoring it.

School choice is "absolutely going to be on the table," said House Majority Leader-elect Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods. Though he said he can't speak for Corbett, he believes it will be part of Corbett's agenda.

Former Republican Gov. Tom Ridge made school choice an issue, but it failed in the state House three times between 1995 and 1999.

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