Voucher express in Harrisburg

    While Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed cuts to Pennsylvania pubic schools and higher education have generated controversy, less attention has been paid to the galloping charge towards school vouchers in the state legislature.

    The bill would provide state vouchers to low-income kids in 144 of the state’s worst-performing schools in its first year, then offer assistance to middle class families by year four.

    It would also expand a program allowing businesses to fund scholarships for low- and middle-income students in return for state tax credits.

    Vouchers are high on Republicans’ agenda, and they control both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office.

    To many die-hard advocates of public schools, vouchers amount to an abandonment of the principle of universal education. Let the most motivated families in poor neighborhoods flee public schools, they say, and those left behind will be neglected and forgotten.

    Here’s an interesting piece from the Harrisburg Patriot News by Winston Cleland, a former rural school superintendent, who details just how much state money districts stand to lose – first with Corbett’s budget cuts, and later when kids with vouchers leave school systems.

    But the voucher bill isn’t just backed by Republicans. Several Philadelphia Democrats say they expect to support it as well. I spoke yesterday with State Rep. Tony Payton, a young, progressive Democrat who represents a crazy-quilt district around the Roosevelt Boulevard in lower Northeast Philadelphia.

    “Every week, parents sit across my desk from me and beg me to help them get their kid of their school,” Payton told me. “The most compelling argument for this is that kids are trapped in those failing schools, and we have to respond to them.”

    He noted that 91 of the state’s 144 worst performing schools are in Philadelphia.

    “This is just one piece of the puzzle of comprehensive educational reform,” he said, adding that he believes that with resources and innovation, kids left in those schools after voucher families leave can still achieve.

    A Senate Republican analysis of the bill says it will take about $164 million in state education subsidies away from school districts over four years, and cost taxpayers a net $735 million.

    That’s one reason its passage in the Senate has been delayed. Corbett and the bill’s sponsors hope the measure can be enacted later this month.

    There are a couple more interesting pieces worth reading on this. Our friend John Micek of the Allentown Morning call has this analysis of those backing vouchers, and the money they’ve contributed to Republican leaders in Harrisburg.

    And there’s this piece by Tom Murse of the Intelligencer Journal of Lancaster on the mysterious group with Democratic connections that’s funding the fight against vouchers.

    For a good summary of the bill and where it stands in the legislative process, read Angela Couloumbis’ piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer. It notes that Gov. Corbett made a rare appearance at a Republican Senate caucus meeting to assure them he’ll get the support in the State House to get the bill through.

    One thing about the young Corbett administration apparently hasn’t changed.

    Couloumbis notes that Corbett left the meeting without answering reporters’ questions, and that “Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley could not be reached for comment.”

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.