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Senator Fontana joined thousands of Pennsylvania residents on the steps of the PA Capitol Building last week to rally in support of a responsible budget for the Commonwealth. The Coalition for Labor Engagement & Accountable Revenues (CLEAR) advocates for finding efficiencies, cost-savings and long term revenue solutions before imposing deep cuts.

Education, School Choice/School Vouchers & EITC

Roman philosopher, Cicero, was quoted in De Divinatione as saying, “What greater or better gift can we offer the republic than to teach and instruct our youth?” I wonder, with all of the debate going on in Harrisburg on education-related issues, whether Cicero would think that we are “looking the gift horse in the mouth.”

In March, the Governor proposed his budget and took aim at education. His proposal would decrease funding for basic education by $1.1 billion. Higher education would be decreased by $662 million. For the first time in decades, school districts would receive less money from the state than they received the year before. Given that about two-thirds of district budgets are employee salaries and benefits, if the Governor’s budget were enacted, it could lead to teacher layoffs statewide resulting in larger class sizes and fewer programs. His proposal also shifts the burden to local school districts which could result in local tax increases.

Just eliminating funding wasn’t the only proposal. The Governor’s plan also proposes the elimination of the Accountability Block Grant programs that support pre-K, full day Kindergarten and class size reduction. Also on the chopping block, specialized tutoring programs, school improvement grants, science programs, and reimbursement of charter school costs. For many school districts, the cost of special education continues to rise, but for the second straight year, that funding would be flat funded.

The House introduced the Governor’s proposal yesterday and is expected to amend its own version of the budget into that bill this week. Advance news stories indicate that some of the education cuts will be restored – it is being done by taking funding from the Department of Public Welfare. What my colleagues will be willing to sacrifice to address educational needs will all play out in the next month or so. I am hopeful that they will recognize the importance of these needs.

Many of these same members believe that our public schools are not doing their jobs and want to further decrease their funding through the implementation of school choice with school vouchers. Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) would create the Opportunity Scholarship and Educational Improvement Tax Credit Act by amending the Public School Code. The statewide Opportunity Scholarship program would be phased in over a three year period. The first year would allow low-income children (defined as 130% of the federal poverty level - $28,665 for a family of 4) who reside in and attend a persistently lowest achieving school to receive a scholarship equal to the state share of the per pupil cost. The family must apply for admission to the school of their choice (public or private) and must also apply for the scholarship. The second year would allow low-income children who reside in a persistently lowest achieving school, whether they attend that school or not, to receive a scholarship. The third year will allow low-income children, regardless of what school they attend or which district they reside in, to be eligible for a scholarship. A persistently lowest achieving school is defined as a public elementary or secondary school achieving within the bottom 5% of PA schools on the most recent PSSA or other assessment.

The scholarship amount will be transferred by the Department directly to the district if it is a public-to-public move. If a public-to-private move, a check would be made payable to the district and sent to the parents for the maximum scholarship amount, or the amount of tuition, whichever is less. The scholarship will be overseen by a 3-member Education Opportunity Board that will administer the scholarship application and approval process, including review of income and residence of applicants, announcing scholarship awards, confirming enrollment, and allocating the scholarship funds. Districts may create a local scholarship to low-income children who reside in that district to provide additional opportunity to attend a non-resident public school. Application for local scholarships shall also be made to the Education Opportunity Board. Receiving districts must enroll the students on a first-come, first-served basis. No such requirement is in place for private or parochial schools.

SB 1 prohibits schools from charging scholarship recipients a higher tuition rate. It also creates an excess scholarship fund where any scholarship amount in excess of tuition may be deposited and applied to future costs of the program. An appropriation is required to be made each year and, if insufficient funds are available, will be given out on a pro rata basis. Once a student receives the scholarship, they will remain eligible for future funding. If the student is no longer “low income,” the student will continue to receive a scholarship through eighth grade, reduced on a pro rata basis.

Amendments made during the committee process have included the prohibition of athletic recruiting of Opportunity Scholarship recipients by schools, the requirement that participating non-public schools to be non-profit entities (501c3) and to have written policies related to tuition, admissions, academics, discipline, religious instruction, parent involvement and extracurricular activities, clarifies that the program will be funded by both appropriations and monies in the excess scholarship fund and clarifies that kindergarten students are eligible in year 1 of the program and that kindergarten and all students residing within the boundary of a persistently lowest achieving school are eligible in year 2.

For your reference, I voted against the bill when it was before the Senate Appropriations Committee. While I and many of my colleagues were ready to vote on final passage, the Senate Republicans decided not to consider the bill. It has since been sent back to the Education Committee for consideration. As you are likely aware, the press is reporting that Governor Corbett and the Senate Republicans have reached an agreement on the bill and that it will be amended in committee – however, there has been no action in several weeks. Clearly, once the amendment is available, there will be a need to review that, and any other, amendments that will be forthcoming.

This has been a very controversial issue. As I write this, the communications that I have received on this bill number nearly 800, both in favor and against. Some of the e-mails that I have received have asked me to vote in favor of Catholic schools, or have noted that the Catholic schools are struggling and that those schools in the Pittsburgh Diocese need all of the help they can get. I, myself, am a product of a private, Catholic education and I made the same choice for my own children. I have been a supporter of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, and of increasing the caps, since my election because of the opportunities it gives to parents to make a choice that's best for their children's education. It is a program that supports both low and middle income families. That, however, is not the issue here - it is about making a decision that is best for, and benefits, all children in this Commonwealth. At a time when the legislature is looking to decrease school district mandates, this bill adds more by requiring districts to transport children to the school they choose to attend and requiring districts to pay for full-day kindergarten at a private school even if the public school offers only a half-day kindergarten program, to name just two.

A quality education is the key to our children’s futures. I believe that. While this issue affects Catholic schools, it is not about Catholic schools. It’s about providing quality education for all children. As it is currently written, SB 1 does not address all children. It doesn’t address those children that Catholic schools or other private schools may not want or won’t accept. It doesn’t address the children who are left behind and it doesn’t address the children whose school systems may fail them entirely.

Speaking of EITC, the House is actively considering legislation that would expand the amount of EITC tax credits that would be available to businesses – and, in turn, increase the number and amount of scholarships available to families. House Bill 1330 (HB 1330) would increase the available amount of tax credits to $100 million (currently at $60 million) in the upcoming fiscal year and to $200 million in Fiscal Year 2012-13. The bill would also increase the income limits for families to qualify (currently at $50,000) to $60,000 on June 30, 2011 and to $75,000 after June 30, 2012. The legislation could be voted on as early as tomorrow.

PA Unclaimed Property

The Pennsylvania Treasury Department is now advertising in newspapers across the Commonwealth property that has been reported to the Bureau of Unclaimed Property. Keep in mind that the Treasury is only required to advertise the names of people, businesses, or organizations owed property valued in excess of $250 and that the names appear in the newspaper only one time even though they may be owed multiple pieces of property. That being the case, everyone should search the Treasury’s Unclaimed Property database at www.patreasury.org. For assistance, you can also contact any one of my offices for assistance in searching for, and applying for, unclaimed property. Questions may also be directed to the Unclaimed Property call center at 1-800-222-2046.

Free PA Vacation Guide

A new “Best of Pennsylvania” vacation guide is now available for free – providing useful information on the state’s most popular destinations. The Pennsylvania Tourism Office is offering the guide to highlight attractions, history, dining, culture and recreation in the state. You can request your free guide by logging on to the VisitPA website, or by calling 1-800-VISIT PA. The vacation guide includes information on all ten tourism regions in the state, making it a useful resource for families looking to plan a vacation close to home.

Tourism is big business in Pennsylvania. It’s one of the reasons I offered Senate Resolution 113 (SR 113) designating May 7-15, 2011 as National Travel and Tourism Week in Pennsylvania. Tourism is the second largest industry in the Commonwealth and supports hundreds of thousands of jobs in local communities throughout our Commonwealth. Travel and tourism continue to be a major driver of quality of life and opportunity and I was happy to recognize the industry with SR 113.

Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics

Members of the Pittsburgh Police are preparing for a torch run to raise awareness and support for the athletes of the Special Olympics. You can help support Team Pittsburgh Police by visiting its website. The Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics begins June 7th at 9 a.m. at PNC Park. Hundreds of runners representing forty law enforcement officers/teams from across the state will participate by carrying the torch from home plate at PNC to home plate at Medlar Field in State College. Team Pittsburgh Police has the honor of running the first leg. This event celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Pennsylvania Special Olympics and also serves as a kick-off for the 2011 Summer Games in State College. All of the proceeds donated to each team will benefit the athletes who participate in the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania.

Offices Closed

All Senate offices will be closed next Tuesday, May 17th for the primary election, which is designated a Senate holiday. Offices will re-open Wednesday, May 18th, as scheduled.

Around the District

This past Tuesday, I had the opportunity to sit down with a very broad and diverse group of organizations. I spoke with the PA Horsemen’s Association about the impact of gaming on their industry – which was particularly interesting in light of the Kentucky Derby being run this past weekend. Did you know that PA has become one of the top thoroughbred racing states in the country? Standardbred breeders have seen a marked increase in the numbers of PA registered stallions and mares.

I discussed HB 1 and SB 2 with members of the Fair Share Act Coalition, had an opportunity to meet the new President of the Carnegie Museums, spoke with Huntington Bank about their efforts in the Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh markets, and talked with researchers for the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine who are making extraordinary strides in medicine in jaw-dropping ways – in our community!

On Wednesday, the Senate Law & Justice Committee continued its conversations about ways to improve our liquor delivery system with a public hearing on proposals made by the PA Liquor Control Board. A companion piece to SB 353 passed the Urban Affairs & Housing Committee continuing to move forward the effort that I began last year to prohibit private transfer fees in the Commonwealth.

Senator Fontana is shown with two Civil War Re-enactors and Heinz History Center Executive Director, Andy Masich, far right, at last week’s ribbon cutting and launch of the Civil War Roadshow Exhibit.

During the day Thursday, I was visited by a group of 15-20 children aged 3-5 who stopped by the office during their daily walk. We read the Pennsylvania One Book, Every Young Child selection, Whose Shoes? A Shoe for Every Job and talked about all of the shoes that they need for our jobs.

On Friday, I was very honored to join the Senator John Heinz History Center in a ribbon cutting and launch of the Civil War Roadshow Exhibit. Later that day, I visited with students at Pittsburgh Stevens K-8 as part of the school’s Guest Reader Day where I had the opportunity to talk with a classroom about what I do in my job and answer their questions.

Yesterday, I returned to Harrisburg as the Senate celebrated Turkish Cultural Day at the Capitol and we voted on several controversial issues in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Fontana Fact

Many of the streets on Pittsburgh’s South Side are named after friends and family of British Major John Ormsby. The South Side and some of its hillsides were granted to Major Ormsby in 1763 by King George III for his service during the French and Indian War. Carson (Carson Street) was a Philadelphia sea captain and a friend of Major Ormsby. Sidney, Sarah, Wharton Jane, Mary and Page streets were all named after family members.

 

Offices of State Senator Wayne D. Fontana

 
Free PA Vacation Guide Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics