Lawmaker proposes school choice for Pennsylvania students in poor-performing districts

(The Center Square) – A Pennsylvania state senator is proposing a new school-choice program for students who live in the commonwealth’s poorest-performing public school districts.

Sen. Judy Ward, R-Hollidaysburg, penned a memorandum to her colleague, soliciting co-sponsors for legislation to create new Lifeline Scholarships for students struggling in the commonwealth’s lowest-achieving school districts.

“Under this legislation, parents with children in grades 1-12 who reside within the attendance area of a district school in the bottom 15% of performance metrics based on state testing would be eligible to receive a scholarship,” Ward wrote Monday. “This scholarship will offset costs associated with choosing an alternative academic setting that meets their child’s individual learning needs.”

The Lifeline Scholarships would allow parents to use state funds for qualified expenses that would include tuition at alternative schools, textbooks, curriculum, tutoring or services for students with special needs.

“The accounts would be administered by the Pennsylvania Treasurer, much like the existing Pennsylvania 529 Plan that allows parents to save for college,” according to the memo.

As described in the memo, the Lifeline Scholarships would impact students in the same school districts as the state’s current Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program, which utilizes tax credits to businesses that contribute to an Opportunity Scholarship Organization.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education is required by law to post a list of the state’s lowest performing 15% of schools as part of that program.

The proposed Lifeline Scholarships are among several school-choice proposals introduced by Republicans in the current legislative session.

Ward also introduced Senate Bill 733 in June to create a Keystone Scholarship Program for Exceptional Students to provide scholarships for students in kindergarten through grade 12 with special needs, including those designated as gifted.

Under SB 733, currently assigned to the Senate Appropriation Committee, students with an individualized education plan, 504 plan, gifted individualized education plan, those diagnosed with a disability and those who need Early Intervention Services would qualify.

The Keystone Scholarship Program would use a portion of per-pupil funding for school districts for expenses associated with attending nonpublic schools.

Senate Bill 999, sponsored by Sens. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, and Ryan Aument, R-Lititz, would create similar educational opportunity accounts to expand school choice for military families. The accounts, funded by the state per-pupil education subsidy, would allow military parents to spend the money on tuition for nonpublic schools, higher education, distance learning and other expenses for nonpublic schools.

Aument also introduced Senate Bill 1015 last week to create education savings accounts Pennsylvania families can use to offset education costs for alternatives to public schools during the pandemic.

SB 1015 is similar to the other proposals for education savings accounts that can be used for nonpublic school expenses, though it would be funded through the state’s share of the federal American Rescue Plan Act money and would not divert funding from public schools.

SB 1015 would be capped at $500 million, and would expire when the state exits the pandemic and moves into the endemic phase of COVID-19, according to an Aument press release.

SB 999 and SB 1015 are in the Senate Education Committee.

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