Scranton Times Tribune
Allowing families to choose the education that’s best for their children should not be limited by a ZIP code or family income. So Gov. Tom Corbett’s plan to extend school choice to low-income families whose children are stuck in failing schools should be celebrated by the entire society.
The governor outlined his school-choice initiative Tuesday without key details, including overall cost. But the concept is good enough for the Legislature, including Democrats, to embrace.
Mr. Corbett’s proposal for “opportunity scholarships” — publicly funded vouchers that eligible families could use to send their kids to any public or private school that opts in to the program – met with approval and opposition from predictable parties, with one important exception. Many Democrats from urban areas support the vouchers because they are tired of having kids from their districts assigned to failed schools. They want those kids to have the same opportunities as students from more affluent families.
Mr. Corbett’s plan would limit vouchers to families with incomes within 130 percent of the federal poverty level – $29,000 for a family of four, for example. They would be used only by students within the geographical boundaries of the 140 poorest-performing schools in the state, all in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.
That is superior to a proposal that would have allowed publicly funded vouchers for any Pennsylvania student within four years, regardless of income or the quality of local public schools.
All of this is not to suggest that the idea is perfect. The governor, for example, said the objective of the program is to force all public schools to improve and compete for students. That already has proved difficult due to nearly $900 million in budget cuts inflicted by the governor and Legislature upon public education this year.
Yet change is needed. The schools at issue did not improve even with nearly a decade of increased state funding prior to the cuts.
Beyond the vouchers, the governor also would expand choice through an expansion of an existing and highly successful program, the educational improvement tax credit, which allows private donations to school scholarships in exchange for a state tax credit. It is a back-door choice program that has enabled thousands of families to choose their children’s schools.
Mr. Corbett’s proposal also would mandate long-overdue evaluations of teachers beyond their current “pass-fail” protocol, under which about 99 percent annually are deemed to be proficient.
The key for the Legislature is to produce positive change, through expanded choice, without eviscerating the public education system. Mr. Corbett’s voucher proposal offers that opportunity.