KEYSTONE CROSSROADS — Najmiah Roberson could be the poster mom for school choice in Pennsylvania.
The Harrisburg mother of three has children in three different schools — a Catholic school, a cyber charter school, and a non-denominational private school. And Roberson doesn’t pay a cent out of pocket, she says, thanks to scholarship money — some of it backed by state subsidies.
She’s the beneficiary of a system that has made Pennsylvania a leader in expanding school choice. Still, she knows other parents who want to ditch their local public schools and can’t — either because they don’t qualify for existing state help or are stuck waiting in line for the limited supply of available assistance.
“I have been that parent before,” said Roberson. “It was frustrating and scary.”
A bill introduced this fall by Speaker of the House Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, would add a new branch to Pennsylvania’s school-choice tree — school vouchers.
Turzai’s bill is narrow in scope. It would allow parents living in the city of Harrisburg to use as much as $8,200 in taxpayer money toward private school tuition or the cost of attending another public school district.
Half of that money would come out of the state’s annual subsidy to the Harrisburg City School District. The other half would be taken from local coffers. The Harrisburg City School District would still receive some state aid for students who opt to leave — about $4,000.
Turzai described the bill as a “pilot tuition grant program” upon introducing it in September, hinting at the possibility that it could be expanded to other parts of the state. The idea is scheduled for a vote Monday in the House Education Committee.
Proponents see the measure as a matter of basic fairness — one that makes good fiscal sense. Parents, they argue, should be able to use tax dollars at the schools of their choice — instead of paying out of pocket.
Opponents see a scheme that could devastate Harrisburg’s fiscally beleaguered public school system. And they worry that the measure would force taxpayers to cover tuition for families who can already afford private school — with little accountability over where the money goes or if it improves academic outcomes.
Pennsylvania has watched this debate over school vouchers before.
Former Republican Governor Tom Ridge pushed hard for voucher proposals in the 1990’s, but he ultimately settled for a private school tax-credit program that doesn’t directly minimize state aid for the public system.
In recent years, voucher-like efforts have also popped up in the state capitol. A 2018 measure that would have established Education Savings Accounts stalled in the State Senate.
Turzai’s bill stands out because of its focus on one city — Harrisburg.
In places like Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., school-choice proponents have successfully instituted voucher programs by limiting them to cities with struggling traditional schools. Turzai’s proposal takes a page from that book.
“We’d like to see this applied in other places,” said Marc LeBlond, senior policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation, a Libertarian think tank that supports the measure. “We’d like to see it in Philly. We’d like to see it in Chester-Upland. But Harrisburg is as good a place as any to start.”
Harrisburg’s public schools are in a rocky position right now.
The district now has new leadership, but the district still faces a $2.5 million deficit for the current school year, according to numbers received this week by acting superintendent John George.
“[This bill] is going to bankrupt a school district that’s already financially precarious,” George said.
The district argues that Turzai’s bill would turn their grim financial outlook even grimmer. Because the speaker’s proposal has no income limits for recipients, any student living in Harrisburg who already attends a private school would be eligible for the proposed, government-sponsored scholarship.
The district estimates that if all 612 Harrisburg residents currently in private school apply for, and receive, the new scholarship money, it would cost Harrisburg’s public school system another $2.5 million.
George disputes the idea that the Harrisburg School District would gain financially if the scholarship program prompts families to leave.
While it’s true, he says, that the district would get a residual portion of its state subsidy for each departed student, he says the district would not be able to efficiently reduce expenses as those students leave. School-choice critics call this concept “stranded costs,” pointing out that districts still pay for things like heat, plumbing, and classroom teachers — even if a few students leave.
Under Turzai’s bill, the district would also still pay for transporting students who use the scholarship program.
Then there’s the issue of equity. The bill expressly forbids the state from forcing private schools to accept families who want to use scholarship money. George says that means private schools can“pick and choose” who they want to accept, potentially plucking off high achievers and leaving others behind.
The bill says nonpublic schools receiving scholarship money are not required to accept or retain a child if they don’t have “the necessary facilities to meet the special needs of the student.”
Big picture, the proposal’s opponents see it as a measure that will help the few at the expense of the many.
“Ten percent maybe get a better situation, in theory,” said George. “But it hurts 90 percent. That’s not good public policy.”
Even if it doesn’t become law this session, the bill is significant in what it signals, an unwavering commitment by GOP leaders to expand the boundaries of the state’s school choice landscape.
If that comes at the expense of traditional school districts, parent Najimah Roberson doesn’t care. She says local school leaders have had millions of dollars and generations of time to do better.
Now, she feels parents like her should have the right — and the means — to bail.
“If Harrisburg public school was offering a better education for our children,” she said, “there would be no need for us to look for funding to get our children out of the school district.”
Keystone Crossroads is a statewide reporting collaborative of WITF, WPSU and WESA, led by WHYY. This story originally appeared at https://whyy.org/programs/keystone-crossroads/.