State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis said Monday he is pushing to enact school tuition voucher legislation before state lawmakers breaks for their summer recess, joining the governor and special interest groups calling for immediate education reforms.
Tomalis aired his position in an address to the Pennsylvania Press Club, warning that improvements in Pennsylvania students' test scores have slowed over the past decade despite rapid spending increases on education.
"My hope is that we can get some type of school choice passed in the next week," Tomalis said to a crowd of about 100 reporters, educators and administrators. "I think it can happen. It's the most important issue in education right now for Pennsylvanians."
But with the budget dominating the conversation in the Capitol and a lack of consensus among lawmakers about which students, if any, should be eligible, it will be a tough task for the Legislature to pass serious reforms before the recess.
Tomalis said he supports the same school choice option as his boss, Gov. Corbett, incorporated in the hotly-debated piece of legislation called Senate Bill 1.
The bill, sponsored by Senate Education Committee chairman Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin), would provide vouchers for low- and middle-income students to transfer out of low-achieving schools to attend a private school.
Other school choice bills are circulating in the House, among them one that would create a combination of vouchers and expanded tax credits for businesses who provide funding for schools.
The largest teachers' union, Pennsylvania State Education Association, opposes voucher bills, arguing they will divert precious dollars from public schools and drive performance even lower in already struggling districts.
The ACLU and the NAACP also oppose the Senate voucher legislation.
Tomalis made the case that more money isn't always the solution when it comes to improving student performance (although he also argued for merit pay - that good teachers should be rewarded).
According to the latest census data, the number of school-aged children in Pennsylvania has declined over the past decade by 10 percent, to 2.1 million. Yet in that time, spending on education has increased from $13 billion a year to $26 billion, Tomalis said.
"We spend more on education every year because we've always spent more every year," Tomalis said. "But the data is really starting to show that's not the way to achieve our goals in education. What matters most is the quality of the teacher in front of the room and the support system at home."
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