Pennsylvania school choice advocates use desire for in-person instruction to pressure their agendas

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School choice advocates are using pandemic-related school closings and quarantines to lobby all courts for Pennsylvania to launch a taxpayer-funded scholarship program.

State House of Representatives legislation would provide financial assistance to parents of public school students to enroll their child elsewhere if they are denied in-person instruction from their district. The bill could see the light of day as early as next week.

Specifically, the bill, sponsored by Representative Carrie Lewis DelRosso of R-Allegheny County, would provide parents with the state funding allowance per student in their district. The wording of the bill suggests that grants could continue even after their district of residence resumes in-person teaching.

The House Education Committee approved the bill on Wednesday by a near party line 14-11 vote, with All Democrats and Republican Rep. Meghan Schroeder, R-Bucks County, opposing it.

Presenting his fall program, R-Center County House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff said the Republican majority, among other priorities, intended to focus on means to keep children in classrooms and pledged to pass legislation that “improves the education climate here in Pennsylvania.”

“Our members are looking at alternatives there,” he told reporters earlier this month. “What can we do better to ensure that our children across Pennsylvania, no matter where they live, regardless of their zip code, have the best educational opportunities. This may include charter school reform, which may have to do with certain teaching opportunities in private schools. We believe that children should have the best opportunities and as many opportunities as possible. “

The idea is met with strong opposition from an army of public school advocates and would undoubtedly have a date with Governor Tom Wolf’s veto pen. The governor has been a staunch ally of the public schools.

“Governor Wolf opposes vouchers and any program that takes state funding away from Pennsylvania public schools,” said Lyndsay Kensinger, spokesperson for Wolf. “This proposal would force school districts to make the wrong choice between student health and safety and the loss of millions of dollars in funding, which would ultimately be passed on to taxpayers.”

Given the governor’s opposition, Stephen Medvic, professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College, said the Republicans’ apparent intention to push this bill forward – or at least consider doing so – is primarily symbolic, but politically significant.

“This signals to supporters, voters and potential voters that this is where you stand on the issue and that you will fight for something like school choice no matter what, no matter what. obstacles, ”Medvic said.

Still, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, among others, said it was “incredibly inappropriate.”

“It is shocking that lawmakers are putting their commitment to the tuition voucher ideology on the safety of Pennsylvania students in the midst of a global pandemic,” PSEA spokesman David Broderic said. “It makes absolutely no sense to take state funding from school districts and use it on tuition vouchers when they are just following the advice of public health experts to try and avoid COVID outbreaks in their schools and communities. “

Several amendments have been tabled to the bill for consideration by the House. One would expand its scope to include charter school reform and the expansion of the state business tax credit program to fund scholarships for private schools, as the vast draft provides. of Law 1 of the House.

Another appears to be making Lewis DelRosso’s tuition grants a unique tuition program linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. Others would strengthen local control over school district COVID-19 mitigation strategies, including one that would give parents the power to opt out of a mask warrant.

The only Democrat-sponsored amendment that was tabled before the deadline would essentially make tuition scholarships available only in districts deemed adequately funded by the standards set in the state’s education formula – of which there are none. has not.

In his note requesting support for his bill of his colleagues, Lewis DelRosso said his bill is designed to give equal access to in-person education to students who find themselves in a situation where they do not have that option.

She said many students suffered academically, socially and emotionally over the past year when they were forced to learn entirely through a distance learning system.

“Despite warnings from health care experts and calls from national leaders to safely allow students to return to classrooms, too many are denied access to in-person education options “she said.

Lewis DelRosso, who did not return a message left at his district office on Thursday, also cited warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics regarding the short- and long-term damage to patients. children that distance learning can cause, including school failure, depression, substance use, physical inactivity and abuse.

Providing state-funded grants, his memo said: “This would help ensure that every child in every family in every community has an equal opportunity to attend the school that suits them best.”

At the start of the school year, state education officials said all public school districts were moving forward with in-person instruction. Some schools have temporarily switched to distance learning in the new school year due to infections or exposure to COVID-19.

Jan Murphy can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy.

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