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Corbett's vision for Pa. schools

His plan includes voter approval of budgets.

When it comes to changing public education in Pennsylvania, Gov. Corbett's proposed billion-dollar funding cut to school districts this year could be just the beginning.

The governor also is pushing a legislative agenda that could significantly affect the way children are taught, the teachers who instruct them, and how schools craft their budgets.

One proposal that many suburban school boards fear and many taxpayers relish calls for voter approval of proposed district budgets when tax increases exceed inflation. If this were in effect now, more than 80 percent of the districts in Philadelphia's suburbs probably would have to vote.

Other Corbett initiatives would:

Give school boards, for the first time, a free hand to lay off teachers to cut costs, with the decider in the furloughs being classroom performance, not seniority.

Create vouchers providing state funding so low-income children in struggling schools could transfer to private ones. The role of charter schools would also be expanded.

Corbett also is calling for a school employee wage freeze, teacher merit pay, and a new tenure system.

These come as the governor, facing a $4 billion-plus spending gap, seeks accord by July 1 on a new state budget. Corbett said he wanted to cut the state's main subsidy to school districts by more than 10 percent. Gov. Ed Rendell increased the grants every year he was in office.

The Corbett vision for change "takes your breath away in its scope," said Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College who analyzes Pennsylvania politics. "This is one of the most crucial moments in educational policy that Pennsylvania has had in quite some time."

Republicans now control both legislative chambers and the governorship, Borick said, and after the eight-year Rendell administration, "there is a lot of pent-up desire for significant education changes. . . . There is absolutely a feeling in Republican circles that they have a chance to do some things and the public is not averse to reform."

In an interview, Ronald Tomalis, Corbett's pick for education secretary, said: "We're in a . . . transformative time in education. We are putting together a number of initiatives to help fundamentally change the structure of education."

Indeed, education legislation that had no chance of making it past Rendell's veto or was penned up in House committees controlled by Democrats has already been filed or should be soon.

Many legislators are eager to enact a package of bills they say would give students more education choices and help schools cut expenses, while making sure that taxpayers are not saddled with higher local taxes.

Sen. Michael W. Brubaker (R., Lancaster) said he would soon introduce the legislation requiring voter approval for all school budgets with tax hikes above the inflation rate - set as 1.4 percent for budgets districts are debating now.

Voter budget approval was established under Act One, a school-funding companion to the legalization of gaming passed in 2006. But it allowed so many exceptions that only 12 referendums have been held in the state, while more than 2,000 budgets have been passed. (Philadelphia is, and would continue to be, exempt from any voter approval of spending plans.)

Brubaker's bill would eliminate those exceptions.

If his proposed legislation passes, a "school district is going to have to make the case that the expenditures are important to the education of the student," he said.

Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin), chairman of the Education Committee, said his voucher proposal would give money to low-income students already in private schools in its third year. A charter school provision he plans to introduce would make it easier to turn regular schools into charters. The two measures, he said, would help education become "more market-driven," creating better opportunities for children.

And, he said, it would send the message to teachers that they have to "contend with some competition out there, so when you do bargain, the cost to the taxpayers is going to be minimized, rather than unrealistically high."

The governor also wants to relax or do away with some state education regulations - often called "mandates" - to help districts balance their budgets. Senators are suggesting changing construction and general bidding procedures and suspending or waiving some professional-education requirements.

Mandate relief, Piccola said, would "take the handcuffs off" districts so they could "meet the goals we're setting in ways that reflect their populations," at a lower cost.

Allowing expanded teacher layoffs would help districts cut budgets, Piccola said. Now, teachers can be laid off only because of noneconomic factors such as program changes and falling enrollment.

In his budget plan, Corbett said that school spending was out of control and that the state needed to end a culture of "unchecked and often unquestioned spending."

But some school district leaders are not applauding, fearing that public education could be caught between legislative belt-tightening and taxpayer unwillingness to approve spending increases.

"I feel like we're getting squeezed from all sides," said Lawrence Feinberg, a school board member in Delaware County's Haverford district and cochair of a coalition of more than 300 board members statewide.

"I believe the agenda is to further vouchers, school choice - whatever that means - and privatization, and then turn around and tell us we're failing when we don't meet the targets with the reduced resources we would get."

Some of his counterparts disagree. The West Chester Area School District's Sean Carpenter said he supported the Corbett agenda and agreed with the proposal for votes on tax increases higher than inflation.

"We need to make sure the public trusts that we are being as frugal with their money as with our own," he said. "When we go above the rate of inflation, public perception is that we are being wasteful."

Many Democrats in the legislature oppose most, if not all, of the Corbett agenda, at least as outlined so far in proposed legislation.

Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) said that in Corbett's budget proposal the poorest districts, which get the most state aid, would be hit hardest. For example, Norristown would lose more than Lower Merion, he said.

As for referendums on property-tax hikes, he said, "only a small percentage of residents have children in the schools" at any one time, so most would vote down proposed increases. "It really acts as a cap."

State House Education Committee Chairman Paul Clymer (R., Bucks), whose home district is relatively prosperous and has high-achieving schools that are generally well-liked, supports much of the Corbett approach but called for caution and dialogue.

"There has to be give and take by everyone," he said. "We recognize that the art of compromise and working together is how you accomplish your mission."

Muhlenberg's Borick said that Corbett's education proposals stood a good chance of becoming law but their passage, especially in the current form, was by no means a certainty.

Pennsylvania, he said, has "a pragmatic - sometimes glacially pragmatic - political culture. . . . To move too quickly is not in our political DNA." And especially for suburban House members in swing districts, he said, "if the polls show these measures aren't received too well, some will say, 'Am I going to go down for this?' Probably not."