April 05, 2011

PARA Position on Public School Vouchers (SB1)

The Pennsylvania Alliance for Retired Americans strongly opposes Senate Bill 1 – the so-called “voucher” legislation.  As a seniors organization, PARA has several interests at play in opposing this bill.  First, PARA believes it will place even more strain on seniors trying to afford their property taxes and stay in their own homes, as state money is siphoned away from the public school and sent elsewhere.  Second, as Grandparents, Great Aunts and Uncles, neighbors of children and members of our communities; PARA opposes this legislation on the grounds that it will improve the education for only a small number of students, while causing the quality of education to decline for every student left out.  Finally, as concerned taxpayers, PARA members are skeptical that our education system’s problems can be solved by spending millions on a program with absolutely no accountability for these taxpayer dollars once they leave the state’s coffers.

The economic argument against vouchers doesn’t require advanced math.  In year two of the program, any low-income student living within the boundary of an underperforming school would be eligible for a voucher.  In year three, any student in the commonwealth who meets the economic criteria would be eligible.   This means that low-income students who don’t currently attend public school – perhaps they receive scholarships to private school or are homeschooled – will be eligible to receive vouchers.  That means students for whom the state currently does NOT pay a public school any money, will be eligible for that per pupil amount anyway.  This leaves the state with one of two bad choices.  First, it could simply add to the basic education budget to cover these extra per-pupil costs.  However, it’s far more likely that in this bleak budget situation, the money spent on vouchers would come out of the existing basic education budget, rather than be added to the budget as new spending.  Therefore, all school districts will lose funding from the state by year three, when the state must reduce its basic education budget for school districts to pay the cost of vouchers for students that were never in the public schools in the first place.  The end result of this funding shortage is quite predictable: higher property taxes.  Seniors on fixed incomes would be particularly harmed by a proposal that would drive up property taxes. 

As far as the educational benefits of Senate Bill One, PARA can find little to be optimistic about.  Proponents say that Vouchers will be a way out of failing schools for students who can’t afford any other choices on their own.  However, only a small percentage of the students at an underperforming school would be helped.  In order to take advantage of the voucher, a family has to earn under a certain level to qualify for the program, but still earn enough to pay the difference between the private school tuition and the voucher.  Another factor limiting participation would be that private schools would be under no obligation to accept any student with a voucher, so it’s likely that the vouchers would help only the brightest students get into better schools.  After all, private schools maintain their reputation by maintaining high SAT scores and a high percentage of their students that go onto college.  It’s doubtful they would be interested in jeopardizing those marketing points just to participate in the voucher plan.  Meanwhile, what is in store for the students at underperforming schools who don’t get vouchers?  As their underperforming school’s funding is cut to send their brightest classmates elsewhere, the students left behind will face program cuts, larger class sizes, fewer supplies and other detriments of a smaller budget.  In light of these factors, PARA believes it would be better to pursue a solution that helps every child in the underperforming school, rather than just a lucky few who are bright enough, poor enough, but not too poor.

As if it weren’t enough that Vouchers would mean higher property taxes for seniors and lower achievement for most students currently attending public school, Senate Bill One would also be a giant step backward for good government.  Accountability in the spending of tax dollars has to be a priority for any legislator who purports to be a taxpayer advocate.  When we spend money on public schools, we know what we’re getting thanks to testing, graduation rates, disciplinary statistics and other measures.  That’s how we know a school is underperforming in the first place.  But instead of finding ways to help turn these schools around, Senate Bill One would funnel large amounts of taxpayer dollars into private, religious or charter schools that are under no obligation to submit their students to state tests or report any other data to the state.  For all we know, we could be sending some of these kids to a school that performs as poorly as the one they left!  Furthermore, all of Pennsylvania’s worst performing schools still continue to turn out smart graduates who go on to prestigious colleges and careers.  We can never be sure that the bright kids who are taken in by private schools would have done any worse in public school.  As concerned taxpayers, PARA members are uncomfortable with this giant giveaway of our tax dollars without any way of knowing how successful the program really is.

For all these reasons, the Pennsylvania Alliance for Retired Americans will advocate for the defeat of Senate Bill 1 or similar proposals.

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