Good Opportunity: Corbett’s Voucher Plan Gives Students Options

Harrisburg Patriot-News

A decade after the passage of No Child Left Behind, Pennsylvania has the data — numeric and anecdotal — to prove the vast majority of students in this state are getting a good education.

But that is not the whole story. Thousands of children remain in schools that are not achieving. Take the Harrisburg School District. This year only 18.4 percent of 11th-graders at Harrisburg High School scored proficient or better in reading. A mere 8.7 percent at the school scored proficient or better in math. What makes these statistics even more depressing is that they are the same as the 2004-05 school year when 18.9 percent of 11th-graders at the high school scored proficient or better in reading and 8.6 percent were proficient in math.

Students in Pennsylvania’s lowest performing schools deserve options, and that is why this editorial board supports Gov. Tom Corbett’s education reform plan. The heart of the governor’s proposal, unveiled Monday, is a voucher program he calls “Opportunity Scholarships.”

This is no new idea, but Corbett has rightly limited vouchers to only low-income students in the worst 5 percent of schools in the state.

That addresses many of the concerns that a voucher program would just be a gift to middle-class families that send their children to private schools and that it would cost astronomical amounts at a time when the state is struggling to balance its budget. It also allows the state to make this shift in education funding and mentality on a much more manageable scale than some earlier legislative proposals.

The families receiving vouchers will be those who cannot afford other options for their children.

In addition, Corbett wants the scholarships to be used at any type of school: private, charter or other public schools. That gives low-income families in struggling districts the maximum number of options. As this newspaper has pointed out, there simply are not enough private and charter schools to absorb even 10 percent of students in low-performing schools.

Finally, there will be accountability attached to the vouchers. Corbett outlined a plan where Opportunity Scholarship students will have to take state tests every year. Again, this quiets critics of vouchers who say it will have unaccounted for dollars going from public to private schools.

Of course, a common refrain in education is that there’s no silver bullet. Vouchers won’t solve everything, and no one wants a system where a few students take advantage of vouchers and the rest are left even further behind.

That’s why any push for vouchers must be in conjunction with other reforms. The governor advocates expanding the highly successful Educational Improvement Tax Credit program that rewards businesses for financially supporting schools — public and private — to improve education.

We have seen this program work well in our own community. The Harrisburg School District used EITC money for many years to help fund its pre-kindergarten program.

The governor also is right to push for changes to the charter school law and for reforms to teacher evaluations. While many details still need to be worked out, the overall goals are greater transparency and accountability.

Taken together, Corbett’s reforms offer real change to the parts of the state’s educational system that need it most. There will no doubt be plenty of turf battles ahead as these proposals move through the General Assembly, but the focus must remain on giving students, such as those in the Harrisburg School District, a greater chance at success.

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