Voucher proposal will be battleground for Corbett’s education plan
Also wants EITC, charter school reform and teacher accountability
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
YORK — A plan to provide vouchers to students from low-income families and are enrolled in failing schools is at the center of a four-point education reform agenda, but the Corbett administration declined to state how much these reforms would cost taxpayers.
Calling on lawmakers to give students and their families access to the widest variety of educational options, Gov. Tom Corbett announced Tuesday a plan that would:
Offer a voucher program;
Expand the educational tax credit program;
Create a new statewide commission to oversee and evaluate charter schools;
Overhaul state’s teacher evaluation process.
The GOP governor put the focus on Pennsylvania’s 144 “failing (public) schools” where fewer than 53 percent of students are at grade level in reading and math.
“When we have failing schools, we know we have failing students,” Corbett said. "We can't continue down this same path and think we're going to get a different result."
The current system gives no incentive for schools to compete or improve, which would change if choice was injected into the equation, he argued.
The governor’s voucher plan would direct state-level basic education funding into a voucher, which students could use to pay for tuition at a private, faith-based or charter school. Local taxes would remain with the sending school district, Corbett said.
Vouchers would be reserved for students in the bottom 5 percent of schools based on statewide performance assessments and in families making 130 percent of the federal poverty line or less.
In other words, students in a family of four making less than $29,000 per year who attend one of the underperforming schools would be eligible. Even if students have been removed from public school and sent to a private school, they could be eligible for vouchers if they meet those guidelines, said state Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis.
Families of four making up to $41,000 would be eligible for 75 percent of the full voucher, Corbett said.
Vouchers are only a part of the governor’s plan, but opponents, who gathered outside Lincoln Charter School where Corbett announced his plan, focused on that aspect.
“Vouchers siphon dollars off of public schools and take them disproportionately from schools that really need them,” said Jessica Shiffman, a resident of Shippensburg and a member of pro-public education group Education Matters. “If people want to send their kids to private schools, they should do so with their own money.”
Private schools would not be required to accept incoming voucher students, unless the students met the school’s standards and requirements, and the school had openings, Tomalis said.
Ana Puig, a member of the Kitchen Table Patriots in Bucks County, one of the most vocal grassroots groups in the state on the education issue, said the bill was a step in the right direction.
“It’s putting kids first, finally, because we can’t afford to remain in the status quo,” Puig said. “Would I like to see universal choice? Absolutely, but that has to come down the road.”
Like Shiffman, initial opposition to the plan — from teachers’ unions, Democratic lawmakers and education activists — focused almost entirely on the vouchers.
Michael Crossey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in the state, pointed the finger at Corbett’s $860-million funding cuts to public schools in this year’s budget, which forced some districts to increase class sizes and cut programs.
“Public schools are an investment in the future of our nation, our state and our communities," Crossey said. "If we want our students to continue to succeed, we need to continue to make these investments, not waste taxpayer dollars on programs that don't work.”
State Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said the plan would “pit public schools against private schools for taxpayer resources.”
Students First, a pro-voucher group, which donated $27,000 to Corbett’s gubernatorial campaign, also supported the governor’s plan.
"Every day that passes without enacting meaningful school choice legislation that empowers parents and gives them access to more educational options, countless students slip through the cracks from a future full of hope to a future full of despair," said Dawn Chavous, executive director of Students First.
Corbett also called for the expansion of the Education Improvement Tax Credit, or EITC, program, which is funded by corporate contributions and gives scholarships to students from families making less than $60,000 annually to defray the cost of private or faith-based schooling.
The governor did not specify the amount of this increase, but the state House passed a bill with wide bipartisan support in June to expand the program from $75 million to $200 million in two years. That bill failed to advance in the state Senate.
The governor’s plan includes requiring more financial and academic accountability in the charter schools and creating a statewide commission to oversee those schools.
The commission would approve charter schools — although local districts also would continue to do so — and “pull the plug” on any charter schools not meeting contractual expectations, Corbett said.
The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools applauded the governor for demanding accountability from charter schools and creating consistency in the charter school reporting process.
“The governor's education agenda in regards to public charter schools sends a clear message (that) education must be all about the children,” said PCPCS President Lawrence Jones.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate said the EITC expansion and the charter school reforms would be easier to pass than the voucher provisions, which unions oppose. However, lawmakers were critical of Corbett's plan because it lacked the specifics necessary to advance the legislation.
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