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School vouchers debated during forum

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Demonstrating that few issues are as hotly contested - and as divisive - as school vouchers, more than 200 people braved the thunder/snow storm Wednesday night to attend a town hall meeting on education reform hosted by state representatives Glen Grell, R-87 and Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-88.

Packed into Good Hope Middle School in Hampden Township - and handicapped by a power outage that forced the school to run on generator power for about an hour - the audience listened as both sides presented their arguments

Panelists speaking in support of school vouchers included Matt Brouillette, Commonwealth Foundation; Lawrence F. Jones Jr., Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools; Rocco V. Pugliese, Pugliese Associates; and Otto Banks, REACH Foundation.

Those speaking against included Sharon Kletzian, Pennsylvania League of Women Voters; Baruch Kintisch, Education Law Center of Pennsylvania; Mike Crossey, Pennsylvania State Education Association President; and Andy Hoover, ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Emotions

Both sides presented facts, figures and statistics to back up their arguments, and none of the facts and figures matched what the other side was saying.

The side in favor went first, and then the side opposed had a chance to rebut.

In the rebuttal, emotions once again flared, especially from Kintisch, who several times accused proposed legislation of "pulling the rug" out from under teachers.

He also asserted that public schools in Pennsylvania aren't failing, that money from vouchers will go to students already enrolled in private and parochial schools and that, contrary to what people believe, public schools in Pennsylvania are safe for students.

Kletzian cited a figure that says two out of three Pennsylvanians do not support school vouchers and, further, that research in Milwaukee had shown that using school vouchers to send kids to so-called "better" schools didn't help those students do well.

Crossey cited statistics that he claimed showed Pennsylvania students - and there are 1.8 million students in Pennsylvania's public school system - are doing well on federally mandated standardized achievement tests, including ranking first in reading comprehension in eighth grade, fifth in fourth grade and first in math for both fourth and eighth grades.

Budget numbers

The last speaker was state Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis, who invoked his role as a father.

"I come into work every day as a dad," he said. He defended the state's budget for education, noting that it was $13 billion in 1995 and is $26 billion now, and had it kept pace with inflation, it would only be at $17 or $18 million now.

He also acknowledged that the budget was on track to be between $50 billion and $52 billion in 10 years.

But the issue as he sees it isn't funding being cut at the state level - although Republican Gov. Tom Corbett cut millions of dollars to schools in this year's budget - but a cut at the federal level, which he dated to 2008-09, when the feds took out $400 billion in funding to schools, a gap states had to make up.

He also said that two of the biggest expenses are lawsuits and teachers' pensions, the latter of which cost $300 million alone in the 2011-2012 budget.

"We do a great job for most schools. We don't get it right all the time," he said.

"It's a great system, but what do you do when it doesn't work?" he added.

Legislation

Several bills before both the House and the Senate purport to answer that question, although in very different ways.

They are Senate Bill 1 and House Bills 1708, 1678, 1679, 1980, 1348, and 1330.

As each wends its way through the legislative process, The Sentinel will be tracking them and keeping readers apprised of what they potentially mean.

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