Testimony to Education Committee of Pennsylvania State Senate – 10/13/10

Testimony to Education Committee of Pennsylvania State Senate
Presented by
Ron Cowell, President
Anita Weikel, Manager of Policy and Information Programs
The Education Policy and Leadership Center
Chairman Piccola.  Chairman Dinniman.  Members of the Committee.

Good morning.  Thank you for the invitation to offer testimony today on the issue of school choice.

I am Ron Cowell, President of The Education Policy and Leadership Center (EPLC).  With me is Anita Weikel, Manager of Policy Information and Programs at EPLC.

EPLC is an independent, non-partisan and not-for-profit organization based in Harrisburg with programs and activities throughout Pennsylvania.  Our purpose is to improve the development and implementation of state-level education policy.

With today’s testimony, it is our intent to help the committee and others consider a framework and key issues that inevitably should be a part of the discussion about K-12 school choice in Pennsylvania.

First, everybody should recognize that the right of parents in Pennsylvania to exercise “choice” in making decisions about the K-12 education of their children has for a long time been a foundation of state education policy, and in recent years has been enhanced in significant ways.  Of course, there have been reasonable restrictions placed upon the exercise of this right of parents.  These restrictions have largely been intended to protect the interests of children.

Perhaps somewhat oddly, one of the ways that Pennsylvania policy defers to parental judgment and choice is on the matter of whether to educate children at all.  Under Pennsylvania’s Compulsory Attendance Law, parents don’t have to provide for the education of their children at all until a child is eight years old.  The exception to this, enacted into law only in 2009, is that parents of children in Philadelphia must provide for a child’s education beginning at age six.  It is odd that we treat parents and their children differently based upon which side of the Philadelphia boundary they reside.  And it is noteworthy that only Pennsylvania and Washington do not require children to attend school until age 8.  Thirty states require school attendance at age 5 or 6 and the remainder at age 7.

Once a child is of the age at which some form of education is required, state law recognizes a variety of ways in which this requirement can be fulfilled at the discretion of the parent.

Since 1988, any parent of a child who is of compulsory attendance age can choose to provide for home schooling.  Prior to that year and the enactment of the Home Education Law, there was no uniformly recognized right of parents in Pennsylvania to home school their children.  Policy varied from district to district with some districts supporting parents who chose to home school and others seeking prosecution based on violation of the compulsory attendance law.  The new law recognized that every parent has the right to home school their children so long as the parent(s) comply with certain accountability to the school district requirements that are intended to protect the interests of children.  Currently, about 22,000 children in Pennsylvania are home schooled.

Parents may also comply with the School Code’s compulsory attendance requirements by choosing to send their children to any non-public school that meets certain basic requirements of state law.  These non-public school options include parochial schools and private schools.  Currently, more than 287,000 children in Pennsylvania are educated in grades K-12 in non-public schools.

Pennsylvania Lawmakers and taxpayers support students who attend non-public schools with some financial assistance for programs and services that is both substantial in amount and uncommon around the country.

These supports in the 2010-11 state budget total $191.577 million and include:
$27.020 million for books and materials;
$88.352 million for services such as counseling; and
$76.205 million for pupil transportation.

In addition, state law requires that school districts provide transportation to some students enrolled in non-public schools and the cost of this mandated transportation is not fully reimbursed by the state appropriation.  In fact, there is a substantial transportation cost for non-public school students paid by local taxpayers.

The Educational Investment Tax Credit has been another manifestation of the interest of Pennsylvania lawmakers to support children attending non-public schools.  Corporations can take income tax deductions for contributions that support private school scholarships for students in families with incomes under $60,000. While state policy has provided for little accountability for the use of these tax credits that support students attending non-public schools, the tax credits amount to $50 million for the 2010-2011 budget year.

As you will recall, Section 502 of the Pennsylvania School Code also provides for dual enrollment of a K-12 student in both a non-public school and a public school.  In other words, a student enrolled in a non-public school may also be entitled to services in the public school.  This is an option available to students that we do not hear discussed very often, but which could dramatically expand the options of students enrolled primarily in a non-public school that does not have the full array of academic programs which may be of interest to the student and parents.  Other than creating this right for students, however, Pennsylvania state policy does not do anything to encourage collaboration between public and non-public schools that would expand opportunities for students who have this right of dual enrollment.

Within the public school system, there are various options available from which parents may choose, although not always on an equal access basis.

There simply are few if any public school options available to parents in districts where there may be only one elementary school, one middle or junior high school, and/or one high school.  These tend to be very small school districts which exist, I might add, because state policy provides for 500 school districts in Pennsylvania, some of them with small student enrollments and, sometimes, with limited resources.  These facts often result in little demand for, and/or little resources for creating rich options from which parents might choose in such districts.

But in most districts there are more options.

In some cases, district policies have created and maintain magnet or specialty schools.  Of course, these are sometimes highly competitive for admissions.  State policy is silent on these matters.

Similarly, state policy permits both interdistrict and intradistrict public school choice, but always at the discretion of the school district.  Typically, students are practically denied the opportunity to attend a school in a district where they do not reside because there is no local policy to allow such a transfer, or tuition and/or transportation issues are prohibitive.  Many other states have adopted policies that create additional rights for parents and their children to exercise such school choice options.

Increasingly, we find that Pennsylvania school districts alone or in consortia, sometimes through the intermediate unit, are creating options for students to take courses on-line or using other technologies.  These innovative approaches are become more the norm and are opening up opportunities for students to have significantly broadened curricular opportunities.  State policy has from time to time targeted some state funding to expanding the technology capacity of schools, but thus far has never been very strategically used to support broader use of technology to promote parent and student curriculum choices.

It should be noted that the Legislature did mandate in 2008 a task force to consider and report on the concept of a statewide Virtual High School that could mean important new school choices for many high school students across the state.  That report was delivered by the Task Force in 2009, and the Legislature has taken no further action.

For high school students, many districts offer the opportunity to take Advanced Placement Courses with the chance to subsequently take AP tests that can earn students college credits.  This is another example, however, where the opportunities are unequal among 500 school districts.  In some districts there are rich AP opportunities, and in some districts they are non-existent.  The House Education Committee took testimony on this subject just a couple of weeks ago.  Unlike many states, Pennsylvania policy provides no incentive or assistance to districts to offer this form of choice to students.

For high school students, varied and rich opportunities for career and technical courses also depend on the district where a student resides.  These options can prepare many students for valuable careers.  But state policy provides no guarantees about student access to such programs.  And state funding to support this option for students has actually declined in recent years. (State appropriation declined from $63.696 million in 2008-2009 to $62.0 million in 2010-2011.)

During the past thirteen years, the establishment of charter schools throughout Pennsylvania has brought important new choices to students and their parents throughout the state.  In very important ways, at the elementary and secondary levels, previously never thought of academic options are being made available to students.  These of course are public schools supported with public funds.  For the 2009-2010 school year, there were 134 charter schools with more than 89,000 students enrolled.

The existence and growth of cyber charter schools of course has taken new options to parents and their children in every corner and every neighborhood of the Commonwealth.  For the 2009-2010 school year, more than 17,000 students were enrolled in cyber charter schools in Pennsylvania.

It should be noted that Pennsylvania state government itself has made little direct investment in the establishment and operations of charter schools.  Charter school students are supported largely with funding from the school districts where charter school students live.  However, a few years after the start of the Charter School Law, state policy did begin to provide for reimbursement to school districts of some of their costs paid to charter schools.  But there is an important measure of inequality of financial support here since the support paid to a charter school by the district of residence of the charter school student varies as greatly as does the inequity of resources that support public school students among the 500 districts.

If we might offer a quick analysis of the results of the charter school law, we offer several observations.

  1. The law has meant new options for tens of thousands of PA students.
  2. These new options in brick-and-mortar charter schools are not equally available geographically.
  3. The growth of charter schools has spurred some school districts and some intermediate units to change policies their own policies, often creating more options within the traditional public schools.
  4. The state has failed to monitor, gather information, and share information about “lessons learned” in charter schools in order to share “better practices” and related information with other public schools.

Dual enrollment policies in many school districts have created options for thousands of high school students to enroll in college courses even while completing their junior and senior years of high school.  Again, however, these options are not equally available to students in all school districts.  State appropriations for the past several years have provided some support for these programs, but this state funding has recently declined.

In summary, here is the current school choice picture in Pennsylvania.

First, there are multiple and increasing choices within the public school community from which parents and students can choose, but these choices are not equally available to students and parents across 500 school districts.

Second, state policy is often silent or non-existent in helping to promote greater availability of some of these choices, so availability is typically dependent upon local policy and local resources.

Third, where the state had provided financial support for public and non-public choices, that support has in fact declined in recent years.  Here are the specific numbers.

Program                                 State Funds 2008-09             State Funds 2010-11
Non-Public Materials                          $27.243 million                        $27.020 million
Non-Public Services                           $89.082 million                        $88.352 million
Non-Public Transportation                  $78.817 million                        $76.205 million
Career Technical Ed                           $63.696 million                        $62.000 million
Dual Enrollment                                  $10.000 million                        $6.959 million
Charter School Reimbursement         $226.936 million                      $224.083 million

The fact is that state policy has not sustained even the existing line items that have supported school choices in the public and non-public school systems.

Now some lawmakers and others wish to create at least one new state program of support for some students who attend at least some non-public schools.  This kind of program is generally known as school vouchers.  This suggestion resurrects issues and debate that occurred in Pennsylvania more than 10 years ago.

For the moment, there are few specific proposals to consider, and none that are likely to be considered before next year.  But it is very timely – as the Committee does with this hearing – to begin to identify and some of the significant policy questions that will need to be considered once there is a specific proposal.  And today we would like to share with the Committee some of the key questions from our perspective.

These questions pertaining to potential non-public school voucher legislation are the following.

1.  Do the provisions of any specific proposal to come before the Legislature comply with the provisions of Article III, Section 29 of the State Constitution?  The language of the state constitution says:

“No appropriation shall be made for charitable, educational or benevolent purposes to any person or community nor to any denomination and sectarian institution, corporation or association:  Provided, that appropriations may be made…in the form of scholarship grants or loans for higher education purposes to residents of the Commonwealth….

2. Who will benefit financially from the availability of such a school voucher?  Will the availability of the voucher dollars reduce the financial burden on parents paying tuition, or reduce the burden on school sponsors who sometimes subsidize tuition and other costs, or benefit employees by making available more funding for improved salaries and benefits?  While a dollar may be split three ways, each of three beneficiaries cannot receive the entire dollar.  The legislation should be clear in its intent.  And the legislation should be clear about how that intention shall be enforced.  This is important to consider because I recall testimony years ago from a school sponsor who testified that he likely would increase tuition by the amount of any state-sponsored school voucher

3. Will the size of the voucher vary among students depending on tuitions costs, the financial need of the student’s family, or some other consideration?  Or will all vouchers be equal?  Will the legislation address or ignore issues of financial need and actual costs?

4. Assuming for the moment that tuition does not substantially increase, will the dollar value of the voucher in proposed legislation be sufficient to actually enable a significant number of additional students to be able to afford the current tuition and costs of attending a non-public school?

5. What are the legislation’s intended benefits in terms of access to enrollment options in the non-public sector?  Will any students beyond the number currently enrolled have opportunities to choose non-public enrollment?  Will the capacity of non-public schools increase to accommodate any significant number of new students?

Questions 3, 4 and 5 are important in helping to determine whether any proposed legislation will actually make a difference for students currently enrolled in public schools or homeschooled, or whether the proposed legislation will largely result in payment from the Commonwealth to or for students already taking advantage of non-public school options.

6. How will the legislation assure that students with special needs and IEP’s and students who are English Language Learners have equal access with all other students to positions in non-public schools where they may use a voucher?

7. Will the new expenditure of state funding have any impact on student achievement and preparation of workforce and citizenry for the Commonwealth?   How will this be measured?

8. What form of accountability, if any, should accompany the voucher?  What will be the likely impact of such accountability requirements on non-public schools that have operated by a different set of rules than those applied to public schools?

9. What will be the additional cost to state taxpayers, short-term and long-term, for a proposed voucher program?

10. Will the new expense of a voucher program diminish a state’s willingness and/or capacity to correct serious problems with underfunding and unfair funding of public schools?

11. Will a student be able to use a voucher to attend school in a district other than their district of residence and will the legislation create any right of access for a student to attend the public or non-public school of their choice?

12. Will the cost of a new voucher program be the most cost-efficient and effective way for state policy to expand meaningful school choices for the maximum number of Pennsylvania students?

Thank you for your leadership on this important issue of school choice.  EPLC will be happy to be a continuing resource and link to other information resources on this and other important education policy questions to come before the Legislature.

For additional information, please contact:

Ron Cowell
The Education Policy and Leadership Center (EPLC)
800 North Third Street, Suite 408
Harrisburg, PA 17102




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