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HARRISBURG -- Political momentum is building for taxpayer-funded school tuition vouchers, as hundreds of people clogged the Capitol rotunda Tuesday to support the idea of "school choice."
Many of those attending were elementary and high school students wearing shirts reading "Put Students First -- Support School Choice."
Dawn Chavous, of Philadelphia-based political action committee Students First, repeatedly shouted, "My child!" The large crowd loudly replied, "My choice!"
During the recent campaign, Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley told the boisterous crowd, Gov. Tom Corbett "repeatedly said that things would change in education. Today we start that process of putting children first. State government should be open to and promote charter schools, home schools, private schools and cyber schools" as well as traditional public schools, he said.
"I'm more excited and encouraged about the possibility of educational change than I've ever been," said Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin, who has been advocating state-funded tuition vouchers for 15 years.
Supporters argue that state education funds should be portable -- meaning students, with their parents' permission, could use them for tuition at private, charter or parochial schools rather than being forced to attend only the public schools in the school district where they reside. Many students are now "trapped" into attending poorly performing public schools, said Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia.
The idea is getting a serious political push this year, with Mr. Piccola and other Republicans, joined by Democrat Mr. Williams plus conservatives such as Ana Puig of The Kitchen Table Patriots and a national group called FreedomWorks, headed by former congressman Dick Armey.
The cost of taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers is likely to become an issue, with opponents, such as the Pennsylvania State Education Association, a major teachers union, and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, fearing that vouchers would deprive public schools of needed funding. The money for vouchers would be deducted from the per-student state subsidies now given to the student's home school district.
But Mr. Piccola said competition from private or parochial schools should make public schools more efficient and ultimately lower costing.
His bill, Senate Bill 1, would create a three-phase program for making state-funded vouchers available to low-income students who now have no choice but to go to public schools that consistently score poorly on state proficiency tests.
The first year of vouchers should cost the state "less than $50 million," Mr. Piccola said. Only low-income students (as defined by federal income guidelines) who go to a poorly performing school would be voucher-eligible.
The second year should cost the state "less than $100 million," he said. More students would be eligible -- all low-income students living in the attendance area of a persistently low-achieving school whether they attend that particular school or not.
In the third year, any low-income student would be eligible. Mr. Piccola didn't have a cost estimate for that year.
The Senate Education Committee will hold a hearing on the bill in mid-February, and it could get a Senate vote in March. Since Republicans control both the Senate and House, and since Gov. Tom Corbett supports the school choice idea, the bill is likely to be enacted. But opponents could file a court challenge.