Pennsylvania students and their families are one step closer to getting assistance in exercising their right to choose a school they believe best meets their needs. Oct. 27 the Pennsylvania Senate passed Senate Bill 1, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, by a vote of 27-22. The measure will now be considered by the House of Representatives in the coming weeks.

Oct. 26, the Senate Education Committee amended the proposed legislation to reflect Gov. Tom Corbett’s plan to create a pilot program for school vouchers and increase the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program.

The proposed voucher program will be a pilot project, of sorts. The neediest students attending the worst-performing public schools get the vouchers first. In the second year, every qualified student who lives in the geographic boundary of the failing schools can get a voucher, even if they are already attending a nonpublic school.

Senate Bill 1 lists 144 schools that will qualify for vouchers. The list includes elementary, middle and high schools that have consistently scored in lowest 5 percent of statewide tests.

The income qualifications are based on a sliding scale. Families whose income is at 130 percent of the federal poverty limit or less qualify for a voucher up to 100 percent of the state subsidy amount for their school. That amounts to about $29,000 a year for a family of four. Families above 130 percent but below 185 percent of the poverty limit can get a voucher worth 75 percent of the subsidy. A family of four at this level can earn up to $41,000 a year. Families can use the voucher to attend any school they choose — private, parochial or even another public school.

The average per pupil state subsidy is between $8,000 and $9,000; each school district is different. The maximum voucher would be based on the actual subsidy amount for the specific school the child attends. Vouchers cannot pay for any more than the actual amount of tuition charged. Under this formula, the voucher would adequately cover tuition at Catholic schools.

The school-choice proposal also includes a significant increase to the EITC program that provides scholarships to students no matter where they live. Middle class families also qualify under the EITC income guidelines. And once vouchers are available, many of the lowest income students who get an EITC scholarship now will get a voucher, freeing up more EITC dollars for others. Senate Bill 1 would fund EITC at $100 million in the first two years, $125 million in the third year with scheduled increases in all future years.

Concerned citizens are encouraged to thank their state Senators who voted in favor of Senate Bill 1 and school choice. And to voice their support to their state Representatives by visiting, writing, faxing or e-mailing using the online tools of the Pennsylvania Catholic Advocacy Network. Go to www.pacatholic.org/schoolchoice to learn more and send your e-mail message to your state legislators.