HARRISBURG - Gov. Corbett made an unusual and unexpected appearance Tuesday afternoon at a closed-door meeting of Senate Republicans to shore up support for a school-voucher bill to help low-income students attend the schools of their choice.
The governor carved out time to meet with the GOP legislators after it became clear that the voucher legislation was running into trouble. The Republican-controlled Senate was expected to approve it Tuesday but instead put off the vote to iron out differences.
Afterward, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) played down any dissension within his ranks over the bill, which calls for redirecting a substantial block of public-school dollars to help low-income parents at failing schools pay tuition at a private or parochial school of their choosing.
"We have very, very strong support in our caucus for the bill, and it is still a priority for the Senate Republican caucus," Pileggi said. "We fully expect to continue work on this bill and have this bill passed."
Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley could not be reached for comment. The governor did not answer questions as he left the closed-door caucus meeting among Senate Republicans on Tuesday afternoon.
It is unusual, though not unheard of, for the state's top executive to venture down to visit lawmakers caucusing behind closed doors. Corbett's predecessor, Ed Rendell, did so at least once, according to a former spokesman, but it is not a common practice.
Pileggi offered few details about Corbett's visit, saying only that "the governor expressed his strong support for the bill and offered his assistance in the process in moving the bill from the Senate to the House to his desk."
The Republican leader said some more changes would be made to the proposal, but he declined to give specifics. The earliest that the Senate could take the bill up is April 26. The chamber takes a one-week break next week because of Easter.
The school voucher legislation has received bipartisan support but remains controversial. The bill cleared a key vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday, but it has not yet been taken up by the full Senate or, for that matter, the House, where it faces an uncertain future.
The legislation would allow families meeting certain income restrictions to receive vouchers they could apply toward tuition at private or parochial schools. The vouchers would equal the amount of per-pupil student aid, which varies from district to district but would be about $7,900 per student in Philadelphia.
The original bill targeted students from low-income families. Changes to the bill earlier this week would expand eligibility to include some middle-income students in the fourth year of the program.
Senate Bill 1 would also expand the popular Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program to $100 million from $75 million. The program enables low- and middle-income students to receive scholarships financed by businesses that receive tax credits from the state for their contributions.
Proponents of the vouchers argue that parents of all incomes should have the freedom to choose their children's schools. Opponents say vouchers would hurt public schools by taking away funding and the imperative to improve them.
A fiscal estimate developed by Republicans projected that the bill would cost taxpayers $735 million over four years.
In other action Tuesday, the state House approved the so-called "Castle" doctrine bill to expand the right of people to use deadly force against attackers.
Proponents believe the legislation would enhance public safety by removing a requirement that victims try to retreat or find a safe place before resorting to deadly force outside their homes. Opponents argue that existing laws provide adequate safeguards, and warn that the bill would foster a "Wild West" mentality that would lead to more violence.
The Senate has already passed a similar measure.