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Corbett voucher plan would start small

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More details are trickling out about Gov. Tom Corbett’s voucher proposal that was announced Tuesday.

While negotiations with the legislature are still going on, it seems likely that Philadelphia will have as many as 90 schools on the final list of 140 where students from low-income families would qualify for a voucher because of chronically low school performance.

The amount of the voucher would vary by district, calculated as the per-pupil state contribution minus transportation costs, said Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller; for Philadelphia, that amounts to about $7,000.

Eller said that while 70,000 students would be eligible for the "opportunity scholarships," just 4,100 would participate during 2012-13, the first year of the program, at a cost of $21 million. He didn't specify how the administration came up with the 4,100 number, but it means an average of about 30 vouchers would be available for each of the schools covered.

Income eligibility, Eller said, would be based upon the poverty level:

  • families that earn up to 130 percent of the poverty level ($29,000 for a family of four) would be eligible for a full voucher;

  • families that earn up to 185 percent of the poverty level (about $40,000) would be eligible for a 75 percent voucher, which in Philadelphia would amount to a bit more than $5,000.

When state Sen. Anthony Williams of Philadelphia earlier this session introduced his voucher bill, SB1, 88 of the 144 schools listed were in Philadelphia, including almost every neighborhood high school. Some of those 88 are now charters, one or two don’t exist anymore, and some others may not end up on the final list.

One source in Harrisburg said that there is still negotiation around how to make more elementary schools and fewer high schools eligible – on the theory that the impact on academic achievement will be greater if the students are younger.

The Philadelphia School Partnership, formed last year to raise private money to invest in “quality” school options whether they be public, charter, or private. Executive Director Mark Gleason said that PSP “is highly supportive of the governor’s agenda … the whole package.”

Along with his voucher proposal, Corbett is also seeking action this fall to expand a tax credit program for businesses that donate to private scholarship funds, create a statewide entity to authorize and monitor charter schools, and overhaul teacher and principal evaluation systems.

Corbett’s agenda “is focused on the right things: choice, quality, and accountability, and those are the principles PSP was created to support,” said Gleason.

Gleason said that PSP was in favor of monitoring educational outcomes for all students who attend private or parochial schools with a voucher – something that does not happen now for students who get the private scholarships through the Educational improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program.

“Kids who take vouchers should be tracked,” he said. “Some entity needs to be designated by the legislature to track outcomes from vouchers so five years from now we can see that the money kids took out of system helped them get a better education.”

Most parochial and private schools have been reluctant to share much public data around achievement. Gleason said that some of the private entities that award scholarships through the EITC program “require that schools share test results with them as a prerequisite for them to be eligible for scholarship money.” But he conceded that this reporting requirement “doesn’t exist at a public entity level.” If the legislature required disclosure, Gleason predicted that most schools “would make the choice to enroll more students rather than keep test results private.”

Some local advocates for educational equity are preparing to oppose vouchers as a threat to the quality of education for poor students.

Vouchers, said Craig Robbins of ACTION United, a community organizing group that works on education issues, are “an insidious ploy.”

Robbins said many parents the group works with would probably jump at the chance to get a voucher if they thought they could get their child into a better school. “But obviously our organization feels strongly that that’s not a solution,” he said. “It’s a false hope for parents that we work with that are desperate to have their kids in good schools. It’s only going to be able to help a very few people.”

It might reach “5 or 10 percent of kids in failing schools,” he said, while “the other 90 percent have to stay put with less resources.”

It is still uncertain how drastically a voucher program would impact the School District’s already shaky finances. Administration officials have said that local school districts would not be worse off, because there would be fewer students but local support for public schools would not decline.

School District officials did not respond to a request for comment on the potential financial impact of the plan.

Not surprisingly, the state teachers’ unions and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association oppose the governor’s education agenda, while Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput and a spokesman for the Pittsburgh diocese issued statements in favor. Given the dollar amount of the vouchers, the only practical choices for many parents would be parochial schools. It would not be nearly enough for most private schools or surrounding suburban school districts.

Whether vouchers will pass is an open question. On the same day Corbett announced his voucher program, John Merrow of Learning Matters aired a segment on PBS’s NewsHour about how education budget cuts are decimating poor, rural school districts.

He focused on Mifflin County, Pa., which partly as a result of losing so much state aid this year was forced to close 5 of its 13 schools, lay off 11 percent of its staff, cut course offerings and increase class size. The Corbett administration cut more than a billion dollars from state education funding.

Mifflin County is not likely to get much mileage out of vouchers – where else would their students go? This helps explain why the governor still has a heavy lift to get enough legislative support for the centerpiece of his school reform agenda.

Dynamics are different than they were in the 1990s when a Republican-dominated legislature turned down not one but three attempts by Gov. Tom Ridge to pass voucher legislation. There is more aggressive support today from African-American Democrats like Williams than there was then.

But Williams’ own bill went nowhere last spring.    

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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