The two candidates for Pennsylvania governor said Tuesday they generally support a bill now in the legislature that would permit low-income students in failing public schools to obtain vouchers they could use to attend other public schools or private schools.

That commitment by both Republican Tom Corbett and Democrat Dan Onorato represented a remarkable change in the debate over public education from the last election for governor in 2006, when "school choice" was far from the front burner.

It reflects a growing split among public-education advocates, including liberals, over whether vouchers should ever be permitted, even in school districts with chronically low test scores and high percentages of dropouts.

Corbett, adopting the words of voucher advocates in urban districts, called it "the civil rights issue of the 21st century."

"Parents should have a right to choose the school their child attends, including a right to make a choice outside the public schools if the school their child attends is failing," Corbett said at a Philadelphia forum organized by Students First, a political action committee that advocates school choice.

Onorato said he, too, supported a bill that would provide "opportunity grants" to low-income students in the worst schools.

But he said that is part of a package of changes he is advocating, including greater funding for all public schools, especially for early childhood education.

He noted that he had exercised school choice with his own children by electing to send them to a Catholic elementary school in Pittsburgh.

"I have no problems with giving other kids opportunities, too," he said in the forum at the National Constitution Center.

Contact Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.

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