Education voucher program works its way through the Pennsylvania Senate

(The Center Square) – The Pennsylvania General Assembly has moved another step closer in creating a scholarship program for students in underperforming schools to transfer elsewhere.

HB2169, narrowly passed in the House in April, would grant a $6,800 Lifeline Scholarship to students in the bottom 15% of the lowest-performing schools and allow them to use the money on tuition, tutoring, and other educational expenses.

This week, the Senate has considered the bill twice and was referred again to the Appropriations Committee to await its third consideration.

Funding for the scholarships would come from already-existing education funds; about ⅓ of the money would attach to the student enrolling in a different school and ⅔ of the money would stay with the school district from which the student leaves.

“The Pennsylvania Senate now has the opportunity to take the next step and ensure every child has access to an excellent education,” said Nathan Benefield, senior vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, which supports educational voucher programs. “No student should be trapped in a failing school just because of their ZIP code. Lifeline Scholarships provide education opportunities to the families that need it most.”

In a Senate Education Committee hearing on the bill, the committee approved an amendment from Sen. Michele Brooks, R-Greenville, that would require the auditor general to audit every lifeline account once every two years, rather than random audits, to detect fraud or abuse.

Opposition to the bill centered on accountability and misspent funds.

“Voucher programs often present ample opportunities for fraud and abuse as seen in other states that have experimented with them,” said Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Pittsburgh.

Attaching money to students that previously went to school districts was also contentious.

“I’m troubled that instead of working to improve our current system of public education, we’re about to vote on a bill that would further hurt our already-struggling school districts,” said Sen. Tim Kearney, D-Springfield.

The bill’s supporters framed it as a useful tool for accountability.

“These are failing school districts,” said Sen. Judy Ward, R-Hollidaysburg. “Parents should have some say, and when you talk about accountability, where’s the accountability for these failing school districts? This is a tool to help students and empower parents.”