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Critics say Education Savings Accounts proposed in Pa. are just vouchers by another name

Submitted On: Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Analyst: Hower, Aileen

Excerpted from Elizabeth Behrman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

School vouchers have failed multiple times to get enough support in Pennsylvania, but some GOP legislators are hoping a new school choice program may be the next accompaniment to charter schools and scholarship tax credits: Education Savings Accounts.  

Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin County, announced Tuesday that he intends to introduce legislation in September to create a program that will allow students in Pennsylvania’s struggling school districts to use state money for private school tuition, tutoring services, and other pre-approved education expenses.  

Under his proposal, parents who choose not to send their child to their neighborhood public school would receive the equivalent of what the state spends per pupil, which would be deducted from their home school district’s subsidy. That money would be set aside in an account with the Department of the Treasury and transferred to families to be spent for “legitimate educational services” like private school tuition, special education services or community college courses. What isn’t spent could be rolled over year-to-year or used to help pay for post-secondary education. 

Students who attend public schools and live within the 15 percent of Pennsylvania’s lowest-performing districts would be eligible, according to his proposal. 

An ESA program is different from school vouchers in that the money families receive can be used for more than just private school tuition, he said.

“The ESAs are a much better option in my mind because you’re only using the state portion of education funding,” Mr. DiSanto said. “All the local funding remains in place. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

But hailed by some as the “next generation of school vouchers,” critics argue that an ESA just another name for the controversial school choice option.  

Pennsylvania and several other states are among those considering whether to join states like Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Nevada, which already have ESA programs.

Mr. DiSanto’s proposal was hailed Tuesday by groups that advocate for school choice. 

“We are pleased to support Sen. DiSanto in his efforts to bring his Education Savings Account bill to fruition,” said education and school choice advocacy group PennCAN in a statement. “For too long in PA a family's ability to exercise school choice has been dependent on their financial means to either move into a better school district or pay for a private school education. The right to a high-quality education, that prepares students for future success, is universal and should not be bound by the confines of a traditional public school.” 

Mr. DiSanto said he plans to formally introduce the legislation in September and 17 senators have already signed on to co-sponsor the bill, including Sen. Joseph Scarnati. president pro tempore, and Sen. John Eichelberger, chair of the Senate Education Committee.

“I think that everybody agrees... that education isn’t working the way it’s being delivered in Pennsylvania,” Mr. DiSanto said. “I think [ESAs are a] new way to look at things to solve a problem that’s really facing the state.”

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