NEWS: PA Senate Bill Moves Closer to Law

From The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

HARRISBURG — School voucher legislation is poised to pass the state Senate as early as today, following a lengthy committee debate Monday over amendments from the bill’s opponents.

The measure, which has drawn both fervent support and opposition, would make low-income students eligible for vouchers toward their tuition at a public or private school outside their district. A provision approved Monday would expand that eligibility to some middle-class students in the program’s fourth year.

Attempts to limit the program’s eligibility, require districts to tally up how much vouchers cost them, and allow students to opt-out of religious classes at their new school all failed in the Appropriations Committee.

Senate Democrats, who mostly opposed the measure in Monday’s committee vote, and coalition groups rallying against the bill say the program’s costs will be significant. But the plan’s sponsor, Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin, maintains that it will simply allow the funding a district receives for a student to “follow” them to a new school.

Mr. Piccola’s proposal would phase in eligibility over several years: low-income students in more than 140 poorly performing schools could receive assistance during the program’s first year. In the second year, low-income students who live in the attendance area of a persistently low-achieving school, but attend a private school, could receive a voucher.

In the third year, all low-income students would be eligible no matter where they attend. The scholarships allotted to those not eligible until the third year would be capped at $250 million.

A “low-income” student is defined as one whose family makes up to 130 percent of the poverty level, or just less than $29,000 for a family of four.

The expanded eligibility starting in the fourth year, or the 2014-15 school year, would offer vouchers to students whose families make up to 300 percent of the poverty level. Currently, that would be about $67,000 annually for a family of four.

The size of those middle-class grants would depend on the number of applicants, Mr. Piccola said.

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