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Controversy over proposed school choice program

A bill moving through the state legislature is proposing to create a tuition voucher program to help students in the Harrisburg School District, but district of...

A bill moving through the state legislature is proposing to create a tuition voucher program to help students in the Harrisburg School District, but district officials are concerned it would cost the district more money and destabilize its already precarious budget. After finally making progress under state receivership, those officials say it could all be undone.

The prime Co-sponsor of House Bill 1800, State Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland County, says the program would give tax dollars to students in the district so they could attend other public, charter, or even private schools.

“It’s going to rescue kids from what we’ve seen is now a generational failure in the city’s school district” Rothman told FOX43, “It will actually save the school district money.” According to the state lawmaker, Harrisburg School District receives roughly $22,500 for every child in the district.

State Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny County, introduced House Bill 1800. Citing the U.S. Census Bureau, the House Speaker says the Harrisburg School District collected $147 million in revenue during the 2017-2018 school year from its 6,500 students.

Under the proposal, the district would pay $4,100 for a student to attend another school, while the remaining $18,400 would stay in the district’s pockets. Another $4,100 would be provided by the state to give said student $8,200 to learn somewhere else.

Rep. Turzai said if half of the students in the Harrisburg School District participate in the program, the additional state contribution would be around $13 million, at most.

Rep. Turzai has been commended in the past for his advocacy of school choice. In 2018, the Pennsylvania council for American Private Education presented him the “School Choice Champion” award for leading efforts to generate $100 million in scholarship tax credits.

In 2017, State Senator John Disanto, D-Dauphin County, introduced similar legislation. Dubbed the Education Savings Account Act, the proposal would have given state funding to the parents of children enrolled in the bottom 15% of performing schools in Pennsylvania. Parents could use $5,000 in taxpayer funds for private school tuition, tutoring services, and home school expenses.

But, opponents argued the state needed to fix the public school system before using tax dollars available for private and religious schools.

This has been the main predicament for opponents of House Bill 1800, today.

The Harrisburg School District has been facing a number of serious budget and management issues in recent years. In April, Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse called on the state to take control of the district. At the time, Papenfuse said, “The City’s own financial recovery has long been linked to that of the school district. Without receivership, the clear progress Harrisburg has made over the last five years is jeopardized.”

Both the school district and the city have been in financial turmoil since the 2008 financial crisis. In 2011, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett declared Harrisburg to be in a fiscal emergency. For the Harrisburg School District, this has had a direct impact on student performance, which is very poor. Teachers in the district even threatened a strike back in May over the district’s failure to address student needs, but that was called off.

Harrisburg will lose its status as a “financially distressed city” under State Act 47 starting next year, due to a law Governor Tom Wolf signed back in January.

In June, the Harrisburg School District surprised parents in the capital city when it reversed its stance on state receivership and Dr. Janet Samuels took over as state receiver and Chief Recovery Officer. On July 2, the district announced a 3-year partnership with the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit #23 (MCIU).

An audit released on July 3 showed the district had spent $5,000,000 in questionable costs over a 3-year period. Among those costs were overpayments to employees and former employees continuing to receive free health benefits.

Since all of this was uncovered, the MCIU has been taking steps to stabilize the Harrisburg School District’s finances, which has proven to be a difficult task.

The MCIU found the previous administration overestimated state revenue by more than $5.1 million, and it also lost $2.8 million in federal grant money for a high school program over the last 2 years.

Then, on Nov. 12, the MCIU released a revised 2019-2020 budget for the Harrisburg School District, which saves more than $6 million compared with the last budget submitted by the previous administration. But, it still puts the district at a $2.6 million deficit for the 2019-2020 school year.

That being said, acting superintendent Dr. John George said “every financial aspect of the school district will continue to be analyzed” including outstanding legal matters that could contain financial implications.

The MCIU also developed a Business Operations Procedure Manual, and planned to refinance debt, review the sale of existing assets, and pursue new revenue in the form of grants and non-traditional sources to help the district get back on track.

Dr. George didn’t pull any punches when he said House Bill 1800 would “severely undermine the recovery of (the district)” saying it “virtually guarantees that the district will forever remain in financial distress.”

Countering Rep. Turzai’s claims the bill would help the Harrisburg School District, Dr. George said the tuition voucher program would remove at least $2.5 million from the district’s budget to pay for students already attending private schools. Dr. George also claims House Bill 1800 would double the district’s deficit, and could cost the district another $3.2 million if only 10% of the student population took advantage of the voucher program.

A study conducted by the University of Arkansas looked at a similar school choice program in Louisiana. The Louisiana Scholarship Program was set up in 2008 as a pilot program. Researchers say the program had larger negative effects after vouchers were used for students to attend private schools for more than 4 years. The results showed those students performed poorly in Math, Science, and English Language Arts. It also showed the same students performed even worse on state assessments.

Dr. George also claims the bill lets private schools in the program reject students based on religion, gender and sexual orientation, as well as academic achievement. He also says House Bill 1800 doesn’t provide transparency and accountability for public funds, pointing out that private schools are not subject to the same standards and transparency requirements as public school.

These same issues are at the center of a proposal by the Governor to reform the State’s Charter School Regulations. If the reforms are enacted, school districts in Pennsylvania would be required to limit student enrollment at charter schools. They would also be required to document costs to prevent school districts and taxpayers from being overcharged.

Hundreds of families protested the reform proposals during a rally in Harrisburg in September. While the Governor said he’s trying to hold charter schools to the same standards as public schools, opponents told FOX43 the state needs to take steps to hold traditional school districts accountable.

As for the Harrisburg School District, Ralph Rodriguez, a community ambassador for the community outreach nonprofit breaking the chainz, said bringing the school district into receivership was the definitive way to fix the school district. Having run for school board himself, Rodriguez said the voucher program only adds confusion to an already hectic situation. “It’s very confusing to not only parents, but to educators… you’re telling them they’re there for no reason, they’re not doing their job, we have an alternative for the students. Leave the district. Your city’s failing, your district’s failing, and we don’t agree with that.”

At the end of the day, he says it’s about making sure the kids are focused on their education. “You come to school with a great, positive attitude and you keep trucking away regardless of your circumstances… a lot of our kids are in strained conditions and they’re doing their best. So, with the restrained district along to go with that (Voucher Program) just makes things harder for them.”

House Bill 1800 is still in the state House of Representatives, and still needs approval in both chambers of the legislature.

It’s not clear whether The Governor would veto the bill or not.