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EDUCATION COMMITTEE TACKLES ISSUE OF SCHOOL CHOICE — Focusing on Opportunity Scholarships for Pennsylvania’s Families

HARRISBURG – The Senate Education Committee chaired by Senator Jeffrey Piccola (R-15) heard testimony this week from advocates and adversaries regarding the future of school choice in Pennsylvania and specifically the issue of providing opportunity scholarships to families interested in choosing the educational environment that best meets the needs of their children. 

The hearing was the first public debate on school choice in more than a decade, particularly giving committee members and testifiers a venue to deliberate the merits of legislation sponsored by Senator Anthony Williams (D-8) which would provide opportunity scholarships, or vouchers, to low income students in failing school districts.         

In his opening remarks, Piccola noted the timing was ideal to begin the conversation on school choice and it would be a bipartisan fight for freedom and opportunity.  “For the past 15 years, we have been changing the conversation about public education in this Commonwealth – changing the focus from ‘systems’ and what is best for the adults privileged to work in public education – to the ‘customers’ of education: students, parents, families, employers, and of course, the taxpayers who are responsible for the bill and demand results,” he said.  “This debate needs to be focused on concepts such as freedom, empowerment, choice, competition, and social justice.”

Senator Andy Dinniman (D-19), Minority Chairman of the Education Committee, emphasized that school choice does not mean public schools and the students they serve are being abandoned.  Instead, he expressed his desire to examine the barriers prohibiting many public schools and students from succeeding.  “True choice means choice everywhere, whether that be for a student to transfer from one public school to another, or to a parochial, private, charter, cyber school, or home schooling option,” he said.

Among those testifying included the leading national and state school choice alliances, public school advocates, constitutional experts, non-profit research and educational institute representatives, and parents and students.  Additionally, Kirk Hallett, founder of the Joshua Group, which is an at-risk youth mentoring organization located and working with youth living primarily in the City of Harrisburg seeking to provide support for them primarily through education opportunities, testified and was joined by a family positively impacted by this group and its mission. 

During the hearing, supporters of voucher models and choice argued that collectively they create competition between schools for students.  The advocates of school choice also argued this competition for students (and the education dollars that come with them) creates a catalyst for schools to create innovative programs, become more responsive to parental demands, and increase student achievement.The opponents of choice countered this testimony by claiming there is no evidence that students receiving vouchers to attend private school perform any better than they performed in public school.  According to the critics, vouchers abandon public education and the children who are left behind.

But Piccola challenged the opponents by explaining although Pennsylvania has taken important steps on the road to school choice with the enactment of the state’s charter school, cyber charter and tax credit laws, they are simply not enough.  “A voucher proposal coupled with legislation that hones in on helping make teachers and principals more effective is desperately needed in our Commonwealth,” he added.  Pledging his commitment and the commitment of the Education Committee that this issue would be the priority in the new legislative session beginning in January, Piccola concluded:  “I’m pleased that today’s hearing gave all sides an opportunity to be heard, however, this is only the first step as we embark on the next phase of adding further choice in public education.  Our families are crying out for help and it is time we give them the results so that another generation of children isn’t lost to failure.”
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