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Education savings accounts: 'dangerous scheme' or 'critical lifeline'?

Natasha Lindstrom
| Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, 6:48 p.m.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf
The Pennsylvania State Capitol on May 23, 2016.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
The Pennsylvania State Capitol on May 23, 2016.

A controversial proposal to let Pennsylvania parents send their children to private schools on the taxpayer dime faltered Tuesday in the state Senate soon after the bill appeared to advance.

Senate Bill 2 outlines a plan that would make Pennsylvania the seventh state to offer education savings accounts , or ESAs.

Under the bill, parents or guardians could apply for ESAs for children in grades K-12 if they live within the boundaries of a public school ranked in the bottom 15 percent in the state. Any household could apply, regardless of how much money they make.

Shortly before noon Tuesday, the bill by Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin County, appeared to clear the Senate Education Committee on a 6-5 vote. But hours later, the committee struck down the vote after learning that Republican Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, R-Bucks County, had tried to send a proxy on his behalf but the proxy mistakenly missed the vote.

The committee plans to take up the proposal again in coming weeks.

‘Siphoning' from districts

The proposal's biggest critics — including Gov. Tom Wolf and teachers unions — have derided the idea as a cash grab that could lead to higher property taxes, teacher layoffs and larger class sizes in the public school system.

The amount distributed by the Treasury would be based on average state spending per pupil, or about $5,700. The same amount would be deducted from the state subsidy of the school district in which the student resides.

The state's largest teachers union on Tuesday dismissed the bill as a “tuition voucher scheme” that could “siphon more than $500 million” from the state's 500 school districts.

“There are good reasons why voucher bills haven't passed for decades,” Pennsylvania State Education President Dolores McCracken said in a statement. “Vouchers don't help students learn; they drain money from public schools, and they don't hold private schools accountable for how they would spend the money or help their students learn. ... I hope more state senators realize this before this dangerous bill gets to the Senate floor for a vote.”

Giving kids a ‘lifeline'

School-choice advocates and groups such as The Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank in Harrisburg, lauded the bill as a “lifeline to thousands of students trapped in failing schools.”

“For too long in Pennsylvania, a family's ability to exercise school choice has been dependent on their financial means to either move into a better school district or pay for a private school education,” said Jessica Hickernell, spokeswoman for PennCAN, an education advocacy group in Harrisburg.

The accounts could be used to pay for K-12 private-school tuition plus the likes of books, tutors, certifications and college savings. They would not be available to students already getting private-school subsidies through the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program or the K-12 Educational Improvement Tax Credit program.

Next steps in Harrisburg

Wolf, a Democrat, reiterated Tuesday that he opposes the proposal, but he did not commit to vetoing it.

“Gov. Wolf opposes vouchers and any program that diverts state funding away from Pennsylvania's public schools,” Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said. “This proposal would cost the commonwealth and school districts hundreds of millions of dollars, which would ultimately be passed onto taxpayers.”

Education savings account programs already are operating in Arizona — the first state to enact one in 2011 — as well as Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee. Nevada approved one but has not yet funded it.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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