THE POLITICS OF vouchers or, as Gov. Corbett insists on calling them, "opportunity scholarships," is a mess.

It's a tug-of-war among ideological and regional teams. Its issues are tied to unions, the Catholic Church, race, geography and, above all, money.

It's not a new fight. The last Republican governor, Tom Ridge, tried three times for vouchers, failing each time. Now, as then, it's certain to provoke a policy brawl - and not necessarily over what's best for all the children.

Immediate beneficiaries are lawmakers who will see their campaign coffers crammed with contributions from interests on both sides.

In fact, the timing and scope of this push suggests that it's a fundraiser for the 2012 elections, and further evidence of the need for campaign-finance reform.

Corbett last week called for $21 million in vouchers for 4,100 lower-income kids at failing schools, the majority of which are, of course, in Philly.

That's 4,100 statewide. Philly has roughly 160,000 in public schools. The statewide total is 1.76 million, according to U.S. Department of Education data.

Corbett's vouchers would go to private schools, charters or other public schools. The $5,000 to $7,000 (depending on family income) price tag appears aimed at Catholic schools, because privates can cost two to three times that amount.

The proposal is less ambitious than others, current or past.

Ridge's last effort (his 1998 "super vouchers") would have awarded $5,000 to any Philly student, regardless of family income, to attend a private school.

Which tells you two things: Like Ridge, Corbett can't get a big plan passed; and, like Ridge, he plans to be back.

So get ready for the same old fights: rural lawmakers who (in most cases, privately) hate more money going to urban (read minority) education; conservatives bashing unions; liberals arguing that vouchers punish more kids than they help; the right claiming that the private sector can better educate kids; the left saying that the system's being sold out to anti-union privateers.

"Anytime the private sector sees a large pot of public money, it wants to get its hands on it," says Tim Potts, a liberal activist who heads the grassroots Democracy Rising. "Why isn't the Corbett administration trying to fix public schools that are broken? Because they want failure so they can better make a case for turning schools over to the private sector . . . it's all about the money. If there wasn't any money, they wouldn't be doing this."

Matt Brouillette, a conservative voucher-backer who runs the free-market think tank Commonwealth Foundation, also says it's about money, different money: "The 800-pound gorilla is the PSEA [the state teachers' union], one of the biggest campaign contributors. Many lawmakers are either on board with them or afraid of an opponent who is . . . remember, vouchers are going mostly to schools with teachers who don't pay union dues."

During the last election cycle, PSEA gave money to more than 60 percent of House members and 70 percent of Senators, according to a foundation analysis.

Meanwhile, the pro-voucher group Students First, which gave pro-voucher Philly Democratic Sen. Anthony Williams close to $5 million before and after his failed primary campaign for governor last year, continues to spend.

And lawmakers take from both sides. As I wrote back in June, Philly Democratic Rep. Dwight Evans got $50,000 from Students First and $18,000 from PSEA; House GOP Leader Mike Turzai got $50,000 from Students First, $23,500 from PSEA.

So here we go again. Another issue tainted by the fact that Pennsylvania allows unlimited campaign contributions.

Who thinks it'll be resolved on its merits? Show of hands?

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