Pennsylvania’s Corbett Looking to Vouchers to Improve PA Ed

Gov. Tom Corbett on Tuesday promoted taxpayer-funded vouchers as the ticket to a better education for low-income students in the state's worst-performing school districts as he detailed a broader plan to improve and reshape public education in Pennsylvania, writes Marc Levy of the Associated Press.

Parents who qualify could potentially use the vouchers to send their children to private, religious, and better-performing public schools.

Passing this in the Legislature, however, will be no easy task — with the Republican governor already slashing state aid to public schools, an energized coalition of opponents from traditional defenders of public schools to church-state separation advocates to Republican lawmakers from wealthier public school districts have criticized Corbett's plans.

But Corbett said the state cannot run from its failing schools and high dropout rates any longer, citing Philadelphia's 45% rate as an example.

"We're here because we can't continue down the same path and think that we're going to get a different result. We have to think and act smarter," Corbett said. "We have to have the will to do better."

Students in the lowest 5% of failing schools will be given priority, writes Chris Hush at WETM TV.

Corbett says together, these plans will help students steer away from relying on the state for money in the future.

"If we can change these peoples lives around, children's lives around, so that, as I said yesterday, they don't become clients of the state once they become a drop out," Corbett said.

Nationally, the high-school dropout rate was 4.1 percent in the 2007-08 school year, according to the most current statistics available from the federal government's National Center for Education Statistics. In Pennsylvania, the rate was 2.6 percent that year, according to the center's information.

Levy writes that under Corbett's plan, the vouchers would be available to families at 130 percent of the federal poverty level or less who are in the attendance zones of the schools that are in the bottom 5 percent in terms of standardized test performance. Public and private schools could choose to participate in a program to accept voucher students, Corbett's education secretary, Ronald Tomalis, said.

Asked what proof he has that the initiatives would improve the quality of public education, Corbett replied:

"First off, I have the proof that what we have been doing has not been working." Asked how he will judge the success of the measures he is proposing, he replied, "Well, I don't think anyone in this room can judge the success of it immediately."

If a participating school receives more applications from voucher students than it has space to accept, it would have to hold a lottery to prevent it from cherrypicking the highest-achieving students, Tomalis said. Education Department spokesman Tim Eller could not provide an estimate of how many families might qualify for vouchers.

"This is a long-term investment," Corbett continued. "This is an investment in these children, that when they're our age, we have drastically reduced the dropout rate and as a result, I believe, hopefully reduced quite a bit the client rate in Pennsylvania of people we take care of because we didn't give them a good education in the first place. So anybody that's looking for instant results, that's not going to happen."

While Corbett contends that competition will force failing schools to improve, the demonstrators pointed out that he didn't protect the state's poorest and worst-performing school districts from drastic funding cuts, and they questioned how those districts are supposed to improve in a weakened state with larger class sizes and fewer programs.

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