Al Gnoza

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) continued its efforts to get funding for parents of school-age children on Monday, Oct. 5 before the Senate Education Committee. We were joined by others who are taking up the fight for school choice in Pennsylvania.

A hearing was called to discuss Senate Bill 1230 by Sen. Judy Ward (R-Blair). The measure is being called the “Back on Track Education Scholarship Account” program. It would make a $1,000 per-student stimulus available to eligible families to help them afford educational expenses.

The PCC supports this measure. There are many other groups who do as well. But yes, there are several opponents also. As the chair of the Education Committee, Sen. Wayne Langerholc (R-Bedford, Cambria, Clearfield) commented at the beginning of the hearing that this bill has already gotten “swift and very vocal support, as well as opposition.”

Those in opposition went first at the hearing, with Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania Education Association, joining other officials connected with public schools across the state. They are opposed to SB 1230, calling it a wall between public and nonpublic schools and a measure that does not provide accountability for nonpublic schools.

But there was at least some pushback from the senators on those standing against the measure.

“Whether you like this bill or don’t like the bill, what is happening in our schools is a problem,” said Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-Chester), who has never passed up a chance to say nice things about Catholic schools. Dinniman has long supported providing for quality education for all students. “We have to come together to solve this problem and we have to stop the educational wars that go on.”

And on the claims of no accountability, he said, “There is some accountability (in this bill) that does permit auditing to take place,” said Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr. (R-Bedford, Cambria, Clearfield).

Meanwhile Sen. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster) said he supports Sen. Ward’s approach and that it’s important to get all the groups working together.

“I think the way to build bridges is by focusing on a student-centered approach,” Aument said. “Focusing on the best interests of students, first and foremost, and not in what is in the best interests of institutions.”

Representatives from the Commonwealth Foundation were on hand to present their testimony in support of Sen. Ward’s bill, with Colleen Hroncich saying the only people that really know what’s best for the kids is their parents.

She was followed by the PCC’s director of education, Sean McAleer, who talked of how very often the nonpublic schools are not even included in discussions about funding. McAleer also detailed the constant work that he and his colleagues do to try to maintain the services that are mandated by the state, things like nursing and busing.

He also related how Catholic schools were prevented from getting their fair share of the federal CARES Act funding that was awarded this past summer.

“They were supposed to distribute a proportionate share,” he said. “But the state — from Day 1 — decided to do something else and use another formula for funding.”

McAleer also pointed out that Catholic schools serve a large portion of low-income students and a large portion of non-Catholic students.

Sen. Dinniman asked McAleer how Catholic schools were able to make a smooth transition from in-person learning to virtual learning last March when so many public schools were unable to do so. McAleer said the credit goes to the teachers and the administrators who were determined to make things work.

SB 1230 remains in the Senate Education Committee. The next step would be to have it called for a vote in the committee.

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Al Gnoza is communications director for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops.