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School voucher plan emerges from hibernation

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(The Center Square) – A plan for school vouchers in Pennsylvania emerged from hibernation on Tuesday.

The legislation remains a top priority among Republican leaders in the Senate and a thorn in the side of Democratic leaders in the House.

Between them, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro keeps one foot in each camp – billing himself as a supporter of school vouchers, and of the Senate’s plan, but not the ultimate closer on a legislative deal between the two chambers.

Republicans on the Senate Education Committee didn’t need his help, however. Sen. Tony Williams, D-Philadelphia, crossed the aisle in support on Tuesday as he admonished his own party for throwing money at struggling schools to no avail.

“The bottom line is this, I come from a district – Philadelphia and Delaware County – that is significantly impacted by the quality, or the lack of quality of education,” he said.

“There’s no doubt that funding has been a historical issue,” he continued. “It’s also clear that not just funding will save the outcome for children.”

The program would spend $100 million to cover private school tuition for students living in the bottom 15% of school districts.

Advocates say doing so would offer alternatives for up to 250,000 students living in ZIP codes with struggling schools.

The Democrat-led House, however, refused to include vouchers in last year’s budget, believing it to be an unconstitutional diversion of taxpayer dollars to private schools.

Critics further say a constitutional mandate to fix the way Pennsylvania funds its education system means that money is better spent elsewhere.

“Today we have the resources available to finally begin to effectively address the historic underfunding of our public schools,” said Sen. Carolyn Comitta, D-West Chester. “We are close to real progress. We’re so close to fixing our school funding system and there is still of course a lot of work to do, but the answer, of course, is to do that work.”

Williams isn’t the only Democrat in favor of school vouchers. In the House, where the party holds a two-vote majority, Philadelphia Rep. Amen Brown has been publicly outspoken about his support.

Legislative sources told The Center Square that more exist, but fear retribution from party leadership for doing so. Brown allegedly had to publicly retract his support for a similar bill or he’d lose staff and committee assignments. Democratic leadership has never responded to this claim.

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