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Corbett appears set to push school vouchers

HARRISBURG - The reference was a fleeting one, just 21 of 1,689 words in the new governor's sweeping inaugural message:

HARRISBURG - The reference was a fleeting one, just 21 of 1,689 words in the new governor's sweeping inaugural message:

"Our education system must contend with other nations and so we must embrace innovation, competition, and choice in our education system."

But to anyone in the ever-contentious arena of public education and school reform, Tom Corbett's signal on Tuesday was clear: He thinks Pennsylvania is finally ready for school vouchers.

Politically, at least, he might be right. On the launchpad sits a proposal, crafted by a key Republican in a GOP-dominated legislature and a Democrat who, unlike many in his party, is an ardent advocate of school vouchers. They're calling it Senate Bill 1.

It is sure to face a fight.

Corbett and the bill's backers want to shake up public schools with vouchers, a controversial way to help low-income parents transfer their children from failing public schools to a public, private, or parochial school of their choosing.

Corbett, a Republican who once taught high school civics, alluded to such parents in his speech, saying, "Pennsylvania's tradition of character and courage carries on in the single mother who works an extra job so that she can send her children to a better school."

Senate Bill 1 would have the state redirect a substantial block of public-school dollars - on average, about $9,000 per pupil - to the school the parents select.

The concept failed when a previous Republican governor, Tom Ridge, proposed it 15 years ago. But supporters in both parties say the success of some charter schools and a growing constituency for more education options make the time right.

The bill, cosponsored by Sens. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin) and Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.), would initially target low-income students in the state's worst-performing schools, and would expand to become available to such students statewide in its third year.

Piccola and Williams, along with Corbett, call the plight of children in failing schools "the civil rights issue of the 21st century."

Voucher and school-choice advocates often allude to the civil rights movement. In a statement when the bill was announced, Williams said: "Standing in the way of school choice for needy kids in failing urban schools is like Gov. George Wallace standing in the doorway of a classroom to continue the segregation of the '60s."

Williams has been a staunch advocate of school choice for years. His short-lived 2010 campaign for governor received $5 million in contributions from three businessmen who are school-choice supporters, and he has served on the board of a Philadelphia charter school named for his late father, longtime legislator Hardy Williams.

Both Williams and Piccola, who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee, say that while Gov. Ed Rendell's administration invested record amounts in public education over eight years, they don't believe that money translated into enough positive results.

"I'm not here to bash anyone's party," Williams said. "I'm not saying more money is a bad thing. Let's drive it someplace where it can have game-changing results."

Democrats, including Rendell, have fought off past voucher proposals, saying they undermine support for public education.

Vouchers are also a red-hot issue for public-school teachers and administrators. Officials with the state's largest teachers union and the state school boards association warn that the proposal would amount to throwing in the towel on public schools.

"Less than 24 hours ago, Gov. Corbett was talking about beginning a new era of fiscal restraint and austerity," said Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association. "There are no savings to public schools when a student takes a voucher - they have to staff the classrooms, maintain the buildings, and run the buses."

Timothy Allwein, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said: "Giving vouchers to kids isn't going to help that many of them, unless you require all [private] schools to admit the students." No such requirement is in the bill.

Lawrence A. Feinberg, on the board of Delaware County's Haverford School District and a spokesman for the Keystone Education Coalition, an advocacy group for school board members, faulted the proposal for requiring little accountability from private or religious schools.

"There is no evidence that religious or private schools are going to do a better job with this student population," he said, "and there is no way of finding out."

Fernando Gallard, spokesman for Philadelphia schools, said only that the district was reviewing the proposal and "looks forward to working with the state legislature on this bill."

Piccola said the idea has worked elsewhere. New York, Milwaukee, Washington, and Cleveland offer vouchers to students from the poorest families. A statewide voucher system would be a first.

A study by Research for Action, a Philadelphia nonprofit with a pro-public education bent, found "few if any statistically significant effects on student achievement" for about 90,000 vouchered pupils nationwide as of 2009.

The bill would offer state-funded vouchers to low-income students in the state's 144 worst-performing public schools - 91 of them in Philadelphia, including West Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, Edison-Fareira, Martin Luther King, and Germantown High Schools.

The vouchers would average about $9,000, but could be higher or lower depending on the district and the overall amount of state funding.

School districts would not have to accept students from other districts, but if they did, they would have to do so on a first-come, first-served basis. Private and parochial schools would use their own admissions policies.

The bill also would boost state funding for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, which offers tax credits to businesses that underwrite scholarships, from $75 million to $100 million.

Piccola says that in the 15 years since the last voucher push, a clearer picture has emerged of which schools are failing. "Those who said 'fix it with more money' have had their chance, and it hasn't worked," said Piccola, who has scheduled a hearing on Senate Bill 1 for Feb. 16. "It's time to give kids who are eligible the opportunity to move ahead."

Charlotte Hummel, board president of Delaware County's William Penn School District, said she, too, hears civil rights echoes in efforts to improve schools - but thinks vouchers might undercut that goal.

If a voucher system is enacted, Hummel said Wednesday, "I will be standing in the schoolhouse door."