Should the leader of a struggling public school district support a student’s choice to leave it?
That’s one of the questions facing the Harrisburg School Board of Directors and Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney, who, in 2011, made remarks at the state Capitol supporting a school voucher program. Knight-Burney’s contract with the district is up for renewal in 2018, and the board is meeting tonight to consider her future with the district.
A YouTube clip from 2011 shows Knight-Burney, then the acting superintendent of Harrisburg schools, at a rally in the Capitol Rotunda for Senate Bill 1, a limited-school voucher program. The bill would have allowed low-income students from poor and failing school districts to obtain vouchers to attend private schools. It passed through the Senate but was struck down by the House later that year.
Proponents of school voucher programs say they expand access to private schools and allow low-income students a path out of failing districts. But critics, which include most public school educators and administrators, say they exacerbate problems in under-resourced schools by depriving them of state and federal funds.
At the 2011 rally, Knight-Burney acknowledged that her position on the bill put her at odds with most of the public school community. She addressed a cheering crowd while flanked by school students, lobbyists and legislators, including then-Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, who sponsored the bill.
“This is not about pitting private schools against public schools or saying one is better,” Knight-Burney said. “It’s about providing opportunities of choice for all parents as they seek out educational alternatives… it’s about empowering families to make the best choice for their families.”
Knight-Burney went on to say that the schools have an urgent need to raise student achievement levels. As an educator and a mother, she said, she knows that parents care “more than anyone” about their child’s education.
“Parents and children are consumers of education and should be free to choose the educational product that works best for their child,” she said. “This opportunity should be affordable to all parents no matter what economic level they are categorized in.”
In school choice programs like the one proposed in SB1, a student who is dissatisfied with her public school district can apply to obtain a voucher – essentially a coupon that represents the money that child’s school district would have spent to educate her in public school. The child’s family can then apply the voucher to tuition at another school, including a religious or private school.
The value of the student vouchers is proportional to a school district’s spending-per-pupil. In the Harrisburg school district, that spending is close to $17,000 per student per year. The voucher does not take any local funding out of the district, but does divert the state and federal dollars used to educate the child.
That means that, in Harrisburg schools, almost half of the dollars used to educate a student could leave the district. The school district received 40 percent of its revenue from local sources and 48 percent came from state funding in 2015, according to data from WHYY. Voucher amounts would also be adjusted for the income level of the student’s family.
Knight-Burney was not available for comment on Monday.