Letter: Senate Education Committee on SB 2, ESA voucher proposal (Oct. 23, 2017)

To: Members of the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee
From: Jonathan D. Berger, Director of Government Affairs
Date: October 23, 2017

Re: Senate Bill 2

On behalf of 4,500 locally elected school board members across Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) requests your opposition to Senate Bill 2 sponsored by Senator John DiSanto (Dauphin and Perry).  This legislation would establish a new voucher system called “Education Savings Accounts” (ESA) which would benefit nonpublic schools while causing significant, if not irreparable, harm to public schools and the educational opportunities of the students served in these schools.

ESA proposals have been introduced in various states across the country, and have been dubbed by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) as “the next generation of vouchers”.

Under Senate Bill 2 students in grades K-12 residing in the attendance boundary of a “low-achieving public school” (bottom 15% of schools) can receive funds through an ESA to pay for tuition at a nonpublic school and other qualified expenses.  The money used to fund these ESAs is taken from the state subsidies of school districts in which students receiving ESAs reside.

By diverting state subsidies from the school districts in which these low-achieving public schools are located this bill is reducing fair access to educational opportunities for students choosing to remain in the school district.  Many of these schools are in high poverty school districts that are struggling financially, and which cannot afford to lose precious resources.  This loss of funding would result in further impediments to the ability of these schools and school districts to improve in the future.  Moreover, while some argue that savings can occur when students leave a school district, there are always fixed/stranded costs that will remain, such as building operations/maintenance, food service, utilities, technology, and salaries and benefits to the degree that staffing levels must remain adequate to meet the needs of students remaining in a school district.  Transportation costs for nonpublic students are also likely to increase dramatically for impacted school districts under this bill.

Further, this legislation will cause great fiscal distress to school districts by making it almost impossible for them to accurately create an annual budget.  The bill contains no deadlines or timelines for students and parents to follow in order to take advantage of ESAs each year, nor are there required notifications to the school district.  Without deadlines and notifications a school district will never know how many students may take advantage of ESAs in a given year, and thus what the financial impact will be for the district.  The bill additionally hinders the ability of school districts to calculate future costs by permitting students to participate in the ESA program if they participated the prior year regardless of whether the student moves out of the area or if the low-achieving public school improves and no longer meets the designation.  This provision also inappropriately places future costs on school districts.

Beyond school district financial concerns, this bill allocates taxpayer funding with almost zero program accountability either financially or academically.  While the bill allows audits of ESAs, these audits are optional, not regularly or even occasionally required, and no further financial oversight is put in place to prevent fraud and abuse.  Additionally, while the bill requires students with ESAs to be administered standardized assessments and their results to be collected, the testing and collection requirements are shallow, inconsistent, and vague, and represent the only academic accountability within the bill.  An example of this lack of academic accountability is that students may be given any state achievement test or any nationally norm-referenced test, which will make consistency and comparison impossible year over year as well as generally across all students with ESAs.

While the preceding comments represent just a few of many concerns, the bill creates just as many questions.  Chief among these questions is why a new voucher program is being promoted to target the exact same schools and student populations already targeted by the school choice program known as the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) program (currently authorized at $50 million for scholarships).  Both OSTC along with the more general Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program (authorized at $87.5 million for scholarships) currently provide students opportunities for school choice.

The voucher system provided for under this legislation does nothing to address inadequacies, academic needs, issues of poverty, and various other concerns present in our low-achieving public schools, but PSBA looks forward to working with the Senate to push commonsense reforms that support our public schools and create better opportunities for all students.

PSBA is a nonprofit statewide association representing the 4,500 elected officials who govern the commonwealth’s public school districts.  PSBA is a membership-driven organization, pledged to the highest ideals of local lay leadership for public schools and working to support reform for the betterment of public education that prepares students to be productive citizens, and promote the achievements of public schools, students, and local school boards.

I appreciate your time and attention to these matters. If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me at (717) 506-2450 ext 3716.