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Acting superintendent condemns school voucher proposal for Harrisburg school district

Dr. John George, the district’s acting superintendent (right), with district Receiver Dr. Janet Samuels

A top official of the Harrisburg school district has come out strongly against a proposal that would allow city students to use public money to attend private schools.

On Wednesday afternoon, the district’s acting superintendent, Dr. John George, called a proposed bill by House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) “ill-timed” and said it would “harm the majority of children in the Harrisburg school district.”

Turzai currently is seeking co-sponsors for a proposed bill that would establish a “pilot voucher program” specifically targeted at the Harrisburg school district. It would award “scholarships” of $4,100, which city children could use to attend private or other public schools.

The proposal also calls on the state to contribute another $3,000 in a “tuition grant,” bringing the total to $7,100 per student.

“Speaker Turzai’s proposal is ill-timed and undermines the Financial Recovery Act of 2012, the very legislation for which he advocated,” George said, in a statement. “By removing additional monies from the school district that is already financially distressed, the proposal seriously disrupts the recovery process and wrecks additional havoc, virtually guaranteeing that the district will forever remain in financial distress.”

George further stated that Turzai’s proposal “requires parents to pay a portion of the tuition,” which “may help a few, but it comes at the expense of harming the vast majority.”

“It also only further widens the economic disparity between those who can afford to pay tuition and the poorest of the poor,” he stated.

In June, Dr. Janet Samuels was appointed receiver of the Harrisburg school district, and she immediately fired the district’s top administration, including long-serving Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney. Last week, she appointed George, the executive director of the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit, as interim superintendent.

Turzai began circulating his proposal among lawmakers yesterday, a day after the school year began in the 6,700-student school district. He said that such action was needed given the poor performance among students on state test scores and the fourth-lowest high school graduation rate in the state.

“By allowing Harrisburg families to choose the right education environment for each student, we can finally resolve the decades-long failure to provide an adequate education to Harrisburg children,” Turzai wrote in his memorandum to House members seeking for co-sponsors. “Please join me in co-sponsoring this vital legislation.”

George isn’t the only state official to object to the proposal. The Pennsylvania Capital-Star has reported that state Rep. Patty Kim (D-Harrisburg) and Gov. Tom Wolf, through his spokesman, both condemned the proposal.

State Rep. John DiSanto (R-Dauphin County) was more welcoming, calling Turzai’s proposal “worthy of further consideration,” according to the Capital-Star.

“The Harrisburg school district applauds the Speaker’s particular interest in the Harrisburg school district and welcomes his willingness to assist the district,” George concluded in his statement. “His proposal, however, is not helpful and only exasperates the recovery process that is already underway.”

This story was corrected to attribute the school district’s position to Acting Superintendent Dr. John George, not Receiver Janet Samuels.

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