Voucher plan bad for public schools

Someone once said that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

When I think about some legislators’ latest tuition voucher scheme, that sentiment comes immediately to mind.

For the third or fourth time in the last quarter century, a few of Pennsylvania’s state senators have again made passing a tuition voucher bill a top priority.

The goal of bills like this one has always been the same: take taxpayer money from public schools, and allow people to use it to cover tuition at private or religious schools.

The state Senate plan, which renames these tuition vouchers “education savings accounts,” would siphon $500 million in state funding from the 71 school districts where students would be eligible to use them.

And, it is the least accountable version yet of these flawed voucher plans.

Education savings accounts are set up by the government and funded by our taxes. The few students who qualify for them can use the money for a variety of education-related expenses — like private school tuition, uniforms, textbooks and tutors — with little oversight.

This money is taken from public schools, weakening them at the expense of 90 percent of kids who will still rely on our community public schools.

The potential cost of this wrongheaded proposal is simply staggering. And the state dollars it would drain from Pennsylvan-ia’s most financially needy school districts would directly impact the students who learn there.

If this bill would ever become law, we would see an unprecedented school funding crisis as class sizes increased and programs shut down.

You probably remember what happened to your community’s schools when the General Assembly cut nearly $1 billion in public school funding in 2011. This legislation would have a similar effect.

What would happen in the Altoona Area School District? If one-third of eligible kids signed up, the district’s schools would lose $1 million in state funding.

It has taken six years to almost, but not quite, restore state public school funding to 2010 levels. If this voucher bill would ever become law, the school funding crisis we’ve nearly put behind us would re-emerge — and get worse. And for what?

Every time lawmakers have tried to pass a voucher bill over the past 25 years, Pennsylvanians who care about public schools and the students who learn there have pointed out that these plans just don’t work for kids.

Research has shown that tuition voucher programs in other states and Washington, D.C., do not improve student performance and can even have a negative impact on students’ learning.

And, like other voucher schemes, this “education savings account” approach wouldn’t give most families enough money ($5,700 per child) to cover the tuition at private or religious schools.

But, despite decades of research proving that vouchers don’t work, the astronomical cost, nearly complete lack of accountability, and the impact on public school students who will lose hundreds of millions of dollars in state support, some lawmakers are eager to plow ahead.

The first hurdle this bill needs to clear is in the Senate Education Committee, an 11-member panel that has failed twice in the past three months to get enough votes for it. But another vote could be called at any time, and in Blair County, Sen. John Eichelberger is a key vote on that committee.

In fact, as the committee chair, it’s up to him to decide whether to call the bill up for a vote in the first place.

I hope Eichelberger will understand what the majority of Pennsylvanians have been saying about voucher schemes for the past quarter century — and what the majority of lawmakers have heard them say each time they ended up voting voucher bills down.

Voucher bills just don’t make sense for Pennsylvania’s kids. And there’s no reason to keep trying — over and over — to pass them.

Dolores McCracken is a paraprofessional in the Council Rock School District.