Nov. 19, 2019

HARRISBURG - Speaker of the House of Representatives Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) today commended the House Education Committee, chaired by Rep. Curt Sonney (R-Erie), for reporting House Bill 1800, creating a program of tuition grants available to every student in the troubled Harrisburg School District.

“We want every child to succeed. The Harrisburg School District is in academic and financial distress, despite receiving $20,100 of revenue for each of its students, with most of this coming from state funding. That is nearly twice the national average of $12,200. Yet the results in Harrisburg are abysmal,” Turzai said.

In 2000, Pennsylvania gave control of Harrisburg School District to the city’s mayor, through the Education Empowerment Act. In 2012, the district entered financial recovery, and this past June it was placed in receivership. Nonetheless, Harrisburg remains one of the worst-performing and most poorly managed schools in Pennsylvania. Just 7.1% of students tested proficient or advanced in algebra, 9.3% in biology, and 13.6% in English, down from 18.1%, 10.9%, and 23% a few years ago. Only 65% of students graduate in four years, the fourth-lowest rate in the state and far below Pennsylvania’s average of 87%. Over 25% of Harrisburg’s students haven’t graduated after six years, making them unlikely to ever complete their high school education.

“We have for decades taken extraordinary measures to improve this school district, to no avail. Some families with children leave the city. Those who can afford to often send their children to private school. Every family should have the option to choose the school that is the best fit for each child. Why not? One size does not fit all, and House Bill 1800’s innovative structure ensures that it will both expand school choice while strengthening the finances and the quality of the Harrisburg School District itself,” Turzai added.

Under the bill, half of each scholarship would be contributed by the district, and half would come from the state. Based on last year’s numbers, the maximum scholarship would be just under $8,000, an amount that will provide Harrisburg children the opportunity to attend most schools in the region at no out-of-pocket cost. While the scholarship may be used at either a public or a private school, neighboring public-school districts would have to opt in to accepting students in the program.

“This bill strengthens Harrisburg School District’s financial situation. Anyone arguing to the contrary is simply not being honest or is ignoring the numbers,” Turzai said.

Harrisburg’s Average Daily Membership, an attendance figure used to calculate state education funding, will include any student participating in the tuition grant program. In addition to retaining all local tax dollars, the district will retain over two-thirds of the funding it receives from the state on a per student basis, for students it is no longer educating.

If 25% of Harrisburg children choose to participate in the program, Harrisburg’s per-student funding would increase to at least $25,500, more than twice the national average and a level that would rank it in the top 10 districts in the entire state.

Similar state-involved scholarship programs have been successful in other states. Since the 1990s, students in Milwaukee and Cleveland have been offered scholarship options through state programs, now allowing nearly 30,000 students in Milwaukee and 8,000 in Cleveland to attend schools outside of their struggling districts. Wisconsin further expanded their program to the city of Racine, where an additional 3,300 students participate. Each of these programs has provided life-changing opportunity for students to access a better education than their home district could provide.

“The dismal situation of Harrisburg children and schools calls for an innovative approach to reform,” Turzai said. “House Bill 1800 will empower the receiver to succeed. Allowing Harrisburg parents to choose the education that is right for each of their children will bring immediate opportunity for those children while helping the Harrisburg School District proceed more rapidly toward its recovery.”

House Bill 1800 now goes to the full House for consideration.

Representative Mike Turzai
Speaker of the House
28th District
Pennsylvania House of Representatives

Media Contact: Christine Goldbeck
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