June 16, 2011 12:03PM

Report of New Voucher Bill in PA Raises Regulatory Red Flags

There is an ongoing, nasty battle over vouchers in Pennsylvania that has split Republican legislators, the Senate from the House, and Tea Party groups across the state. The Senate is determined to pass SB1, an expansive voucher bill, while the House has already existing education tax credit program and doesn’t want to consider the voucher.

Beyond simple opposition to private school choice, concerns about the fiscal impact and a desire for benefits to be expanded to the middle class have led many Republicans and local Tea Party groups to oppose the voucher program.

In the meantime, the House passed a huge expansion of the long‐​running and successful education tax credit program by a massive margin … and when I say “massive,” I mean 96 percent in favor to 4 percent opposed.

But the Senate refuses to expand the credit program unless the House passes the voucher program.

Today, there are reports of a voucher bill to be introduced in the House. It looks likely to be worse than the Senate version, especially on the regulatory front, which in my mind is much more important than the limited nature of eligibility.

Based on the brief description of the voucher policy, it appears to hand expansive control over participating private schools to the state Dept of Ed and an appointed board. This would make participating schools de facto government schools. It reads, “The legislation will charge the Department of Education with promulgating regulations according to guidelines that will be specifically enumerated in the bill within 120 days of the effective date. The regulations will be subject to approval of the Education Opportunity Board, established in the legislation initially as a three‐​member board appointed by the Governor to serve four year terms”

The abdication of regulatory responsibility is what gave us out‐​of‐​control federal agencies like the EPA. It is very dangerous for lawmakers to provide mere “guidelines” to regulatory agencies. A lot will depend on how specific and limiting the bill is in this regard, but the language used here is worrisome. For instance, instead of tasking the DOE with “developing procedures to implement,” which is bad enough, the bill will have the DOE “promulgating regulations.” That sounds to me like they will establish general guidelines for the purpose of the regulations, such as measurement of achievement, which will then be translated into actual regulatory mandates by the DOE.

I wrote recently about why Indiana’s new voucher law is a loss for educational freedom , along with a detailed accounting of the regulations. The arguments apply here, but even more so .… This potentially hands the state DOE a blank check of regulatory authority, which will begin badly and won’t be difficult for the unions to co‐​opt over time.

And by compelling every taxpayer to fund every type of private school, the voucher is likely to generate social conflict that the state’s tax credit program entirely avoids.

For once the popular, politically smart, most principled, and most effective thing to do are all the same; drop the voucher drama and expand the education tax credit program.