Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett used a York, Pa. charter school on Oct. 11 as the venue to outline his agenda for education reform in Pennsylvania.
Speaking at Lincoln Charter School he listed his four top education priorities: opportunity scholarships expanding the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC), improving charter school quality and accounting and more robust and comprehensive educator evaluations.“It needs to be child, parent and teacher … and just in that order,” he said.
Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., chairman of the PCC said, “It was very encouraging to hear Governor Corbett voice his support for the school voucher program and more EITC scholarship funding. His words should serve as a clarion call to the people of Pennsylvania. As citizens, we face a pivotal opportunity to improve the lives and enrich the minds of our children. School choice is the right choice for Pennsylvania. It will give families the freedom to educate their children as they see fit, and it offers real alternatives for underprivileged families who seek to give their children a chance to succeed.”
As proposed, the Opportunity Scholarship Program would initially be made available to students in the lowest performing 5 percent of public elementary and high schools in the state, and it would take the form of a voucher that parents or guardians could use as tuition assistance at any school, public or non-public, that they choose. The family income of eligible students would be capped at 130 percent or less of the federal poverty rate, which would be equal to earnings of $29,000 for a family of four. However, students whose family income is up to 185 percent of the poverty level, ($41,000 yearly income for a family of four), would be eligible for 75 percent of the scholarship.
The EITC credit, under which corporations receive a credit on their state taxes in return for offering scholarships which at this time assist 40,000 students, mostly in non-public schools, would be expanded. At this time the state authorizes $75 million annually for the tax credits. The governor’s proposal did not specify the level of funding he would like to see.
Other proposals by the governor would facilitate the establishment of charter schools by creating a statewide entity to approve, license and oversee the charter schools rather than leave it entirely up to local school districts.
He also calls for a “fair, credible and accurate measure of educators, rather than a ‘rubber stamp’ that allows teachers and administrators to stay in place with little true evaluation of effectiveness.
Of the four points the two that are most important to Catholic educators are the vouchers and the EITC tax credits which would give non-public schools an infusion of much-needed cash.
“I greatly appreciate Governor Corbett’s taking a lead on this issue; it is gratifying to see vouchers will come to Pennsylvania, and it looks good,” commented Dr. Robert J. O’Hara Jr., executive director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.
The idea of vouchers have been around a long time, and are already utilized in some states, he said. Despite predictions, O’Hara added, “to my knowledge public schools have not suffered the least financially. The myth that school choice and vouchers lead to the demise of public education just has not come true.”
Whatever the governor proposes can only happen if the two branches of the state legislature make it happen.
No legislator from Philadelphia has a longer record for school reform than State Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Phila.-Del.), who along with State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R-York, Dauphin) has already introduced an education reform bill.
Although Williams disagrees with budget cuts the governor has made in education, “as it relates to his outlook on updating the EITC program, charter school governance, opportunity scholarships and the teacher evaluation process, the governor and I are in alignment on how to move forward,” he said.
Williams expects that either his bill will be amended or another bill introduced that will be in alignment with the governor’s proposal.
State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks) was cautious in his comments, having not yet seen the governor’s proposal, however, he said, “The EITC has really worked well for students in Bucks County. I would like a little more time to look at the limited school vouchers.”
In addition to Corbett, House Majority Leader Michael Turzai and Senate Majority Whip Pat Browne also spoke at the press conference. Turzai (R-Allegheny) said the reforms discussed today are a start.
“We have to have the reforms, particularly in failing school districts, that can make a difference so that we can expand the programs,” he said.
Browne (R-Allentown, Lehigh, Northampton) said education reform “is about one thing. It is about providing opportunities to our children … We need to try different approaches and let those approaches compete.”
Commenting for the archdiocesan Office for Catholic Education, Deputy Secretary Jason Budd, who oversees government services, said, “The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is happy that Governor Corbett has spoken out today about school choice. We feel that all parents should have the right to choose where they send their children for their education. Further, we feel that parents should not be inhibited from their choice of education based on their financial status. Currently, geography and financial status determine a student’s academic future.
“We hope this will change going forward, and school choice will be the catalyst.”
Visit www.pacatholic.org for updates or to send a message to your legislators in support of school choice.