This fall, Governor Tom Corbett is hoping to make good on a campaign promise by creating a voucher program for Pennsylvania's public school students. The state-funded vouchers would pay for tuition at private and religious schools. Some critics call Corbett's voucher plan unconstitutional and unaffordable. Others say they it doesn't go nearly far enough. And everyone agrees it will be hard to pass.
It's dismissal time at Decatur Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia, and Shanee Garner is waiting to talk to parents about vouchers. "Everyone we've talked to, with the exception of one person, had no idea what a voucher was," said Garner.
Garner works for a regional education advocate group called Public Citizens for Children and Youth. She's here to drum up opposition to a program that she says will hurt public education as a whole.
"There will be a small number of students who could hypothetically benefit," said Garner. "We don't know if that benefit would be academic, but some would somewhat would benefit from some would call the choice. But we know that it would do nothing to help public schools get better."
Vouchers represent one of the nation's oldest and most hotly debated school reform policies. The idea is to use state education dollars to pay tuition at private and parochial schools. Former Governor Tom Ridge tried and failed to pass a voucher plan. Now, current Governor Tom Corbett has revived the idea. He wants to spend about $21 million on what he calls "opportunity scholarships" for low income students.
"Students who earn 130 percent or less of the federal poverty rate would be eligible for these scholarships. This money could be used to attend another public school that's available to them and has the available space, a charter school, or a private school," said Corbett.
Voucher supporters say they're the simplest way to get students out of low-performing public schools. But critics point to an analysis by the Pennsylvania State Senate finding that most vouchers would go to students who are already in private schools. Brett Schaeffer is with Philadelphia's Education Law Center.
"What I think we're seeing and what I think we have concerns about is the kind of bait and switch that's happening here, where a lot of the rhetoric is about helping kids in public schools that are failing, when in reality it's a handout to kids that are already in private schools," said Schaeffer.
Vouchers also face a political problem. In the past, they've failed to win the support of many rural lawmakers whose districts don't have many private schools. Rep. Mark Cohen, a Democrat from Northeast Philadelphia, says that's still an obstacle.
"Any program of funding non-public schools is inherently not a statewide program--its only for areas that have non-public schools," said Cohen.
A recent poll found that almost two-thirds of Pennsylvania voters oppose vouchers. But the policy has its supporters. Vouchers have been pushed hard by some national groups, including Students First, which advocates for school choice, and Freedom Works, dedicated to low taxes and small government. And they've always had the staunch support of the Catholic Church.
"I heard vouchers back when I was teaching in the eighties and nineties. It always comes out with great enthusiasm, but then it exits as quickly as it comes to the fore," said Mary Rochford, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. She thinks a voucher program could help the Archdiocese fill about half of its 7,000 empty seats. But she also says her schools would probably need extra funding to support new students who struggle academically.
"If all of a sudden you have three students who need 95 percent of the teachers time, then what about the rest of the class? We see every child as a gift from God, and we want to help everybody, but we can't do it in this day and age without the appropriate funding to be able to do it," said Rochford.
Corbett has yet to share many details of his voucher plan, which would probably provide about $7,000 to $9,000 per student. It would also start small, targeting students at the state's lowest-performing schools. These limits frustrate some voucher supporters. Don Adams is a co-founder of the Independence Hall Tea Party Association. He's helped lobby for vouchers for decades and he thinks Corbett's plans come up short.
"It is really targeted towards low income students, it's not broad enough, it doesn't assist people who send their kids to private or parochial schools, or parents that home school, or parents that cyber-school their children," said Adams.
Adams would like to see vouchers go to any student ina failing school. He doesn't see a problem with state funding for religious schools. And he thinks that even those legislators who don't have a lot of private schools in their districts should support vouchers anyway.
"They have to realize that parents even in their areas might want choice, and even if there might not be a school there today, there might be a school there tomorrow," he said.
Observers on both sides of the political divide agree that a voucher bill won't be easy to pass. It faces strong opposition from teachers unions and many Democrats. And so far some key Republican voucher supporters are sounding lukewarm about Corbett's limited plan.