Pennsylvania Senate clears way for spending on school choice, student-teacher stipends

Pennsylvania’s state Senate moved past a longstanding budget feud Wednesday and approved school-funding legislation that would send millions more to subsidize private school tuition and create a student-teacher stipend to try to stem a shortage of teachers.

In addition to subsidies for private schools and student teachers, it also ties up some loose ends from a nearly five-month-old dispute over elements of the state’s spending plan for the 2023-24 fiscal year.

The bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate, 43-7, and goes to the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

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Those include allowing more than $300 million to flow to libraries and community colleges, as well as $100 million in federal aid to flow to school mental health services and $75 million to clean up lead, asbestos, mold and other environmental health hazards in school buildings.

Previous versions of the bill had stalled, until Democrats dropped a provision that Republicans opposed to send another $100 million to the poorest public schools.

Under the bill, the state will expand a tax credit program by $130 million — from $340 million to $470 million — that allows businesses to receive tax breaks in exchange for donating money to defray the cost of tuition at private and religious schools.

Public school advocates have criticized the program as discriminatory, saying many of the eligible schools cherry-pick the students they want to teach and have policies that discriminate on the basis of religion, LGBTQ+ status, disability or another reason.

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The tax credit program is championed primarily by Republicans, who agreed to concessions sought by Democrats.

Those include scaling back the amount of money that middleman administrators can keep — from 20% down to 10% — and requiring the disclosure of more demographic information about the students who benefit. The bill also boosts the amount of tax credits from $12 million to $60 million for donations that go to private schools that serve a larger proportion of students from lower-income families.

To encourage more college students to become teachers, the bill would create a program to give a stipend of up to $15,000 to student teachers.

With numerous schools having difficulty hiring or retaining teachers, the stipends are aimed at easing a hardship for college students finishing up a teaching degree who each must student-teach in schools for 12 weeks without pay.

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