This should be the time for the final charge to deliver a school voucher program to Pennsylvania, advocates say.
Gov. Tom Corbett says he wants families to have taxpayer-funded vouchers so they can move children out of bad schools. With a General Assembly controlled by his fellow Republicans, Corbett hoped to see a voucher program in place for parents next fall.
Corbett has said it is crucial for the Legislature to get him a bill before the end of the month.
Many concede there is virtually no chance a voucher bill will make it to Corbett this month. Even among the foot-soldiers, there is a pervading sense of realism that what so many hoped would be a triumphant fall campaign is destined to fall short.
If a voucher bill isn’t passed this month, some worry that it may languish for another year or more. Supporters increasingly worry that a golden opportunity to help parents put their kids in better schools is being lost.
State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, the leading champion of vouchers in the Senate, told a school choice forum in Harrisburg last week that lawmakers don’t want to cast votes on a controversial issue when they are up for re-election. Most lawmakers run again in 2012 — the entire state House of Representatives and half the Senate.
Piccola, the Dauphin County Republican who is a 35-year veteran of the Legislature, is not running again next year. He’d like to see a voucher bill enacted before he leaves the General Assembly.
“I would expect these two weeks to be extremely important, not that anything won’t get done next year, but it will be very, very difficult … to get accomplished in this area after Jan. 1,” Piccola said.
The Senate passed Piccola’s voucher bill this fall, and it is before the state House. With action in the House uncertain at best, Piccola said his frustrations are mounting.
“Oh, the word frustration doesn’t describe my feelings on this issue, because we have spent an inordinate amount of time teeing this issue up,” Piccola said. “The bill was introduced in January. It’s had hearings after hearing.
“The frustration is tremendous, but hopefully we’ll get something.”
If there’s no action before the election, there’s a possibility that the results of the election could pose an even bigger obstacle for school vouchers.
If Republicans lose their majority in the state House to the Democrats, or even end up with a smaller edge, then the window for passage of a voucher bill could close for a long time. Most Democrats object to vouchers, saying they could hurt public schools. The teachers unions that support the Democrats vigorously oppose vouchers.
The clock ticks
The reason for lower expectations among supporters is as simple as the calendar on the wall.
The state House breaks for the holidays Dec. 20. The Senate begins its break on Dec. 14. If the House alters the bill, it would have to go back to the Senate.
Some have scaled back expectations of a December bill-signing at a struggling school, and would like the House to simply pass a bill.
Even that may be a challenge.
Lawmakers aim to strike agreements on a final bill on Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling and redistricting of Congressional seats.
“With the little time they have left, there won’t be final passage this calendar year,” said Tom Shaheen, vice president of policy for the Pennsylvania Family Institute.
Leo Knepper, executive director of the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, a conservative issue advocacy group, said that’s precisely why pro-voucher advocates will rally for one last stand this month.
“Next year’s going to be all about naming bridges,” Knepper said, “because even though we’re paying them $80,000 a year, it’s an election year, and they will go into self-preservation mode.”
If the issue does falter, Knepper said his group believes it will have been because House and Senate leaders did not do enough. He said groups like his are prepared to make vouchers a campaign issue.
“We will know who stood in the way of school choice, and we will bring all of the resources that our supporters make available to us to bear to replace them with people who are willing to work for the taxpayers and not the union bosses,” Knepper said.
Criticism of Corbett
Corbett is getting his share of blame, too.
Dave Thomas, chief counsel to House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, added this critique: The administration spent too much time touting vouchers as a concept and not enough in preparing a detailed plan.
“Concepts are one thing,” Thomas said, “but members want a piece of legislation that they can look at and say: ‘How does this affect my district?’ ”
By contrast, Thomas said, Corbett’s office did move a specific Marcellus Shale proposal and it created a platform from which the House could act. On vouchers, the House never got a detailed proposal until the Senate passed its bill in October, he said.
Some pro-voucher forces fault Corbett for not doing more of the hand-to-hand combat that marked former Gov. Tom Ridge’s efforts — albeit unsuccessful — to line up votes for vouchers by meeting with legislators.
“He does not do retail lobbying,” one source said of Corbett. “He’s a good guy, but he’s not a Tom Ridge or an Ed Rendell when it comes to working with legislators … and that is not his shtick.”
Corbett did not have the flush treasury with which to fund lawmakers’ pet projects that Ridge and former Gov. Ed Rendell sometimes employed. And the blunt truth is that for some fence-sitters, that kind of horse trading is needed to win a tough vote.
But Corbett had a lever that he could push in transportation funding, something that a lot of lawmakers in both parties favor. And that could have helped some feel like they won something for their district through their vote.
The governor chose not to push transportation funding this year because he felt that in this economy, it was not the right time to raise gas taxes or vehicle registration fees.
Corbett has made clear that he supports the major provisions of the Senate voucher bill and wants the House to vote it.
The Senate bill, passed in October on a 27-22 vote, would create vouchers for students at Pennsylvania’s 143 worst-performing schools. The vouchers would help those students transfer to another public school or pay for private or parochial school tuition.
Corbett also signaled, in meetings with Senate and House leaders, that he wants vouchers to be included with any other school reform measures that reach his desk, like an increase in tax credits for businesses that donate to schools or changes in charter school regulations.
That linkage gives them their best shot at passing a voucher bill in the House, the governor’s legislative aides said.
Kevin Harley, Corbett’s spokesman, said the governor and his staff have been engaged with the General Assembly since the summer on vouchers, and that they should be well aware of his goals for an education reform package.
“He’s not looking for House members to come up with excuses now; he’s looking for results,” Harley said.
Earlier this year, Piccola said the governor needed to exert more leadership on the voucher issue. Now, Piccola credits Corbett for working with House members.
“The governor apparently is doing a lot of things over in the House that aren’t visible to the rest of us, from what I’m hearing,” Piccola said.
When asked if he felt Corbett is doing enough to get it passed, Piccola said, “I just don’t have enough information to make that judgment.”
House will gauge members
House Republicans will have to put up the vast majority of the yes votes for any voucher program.
House Republican leaders defended their pace.
And they do not, at this point, guarantee a vote.
Many House Republicans have genuine questions about the cost of the program, and whether that’s a good investment at a time when the state cut aid to public schools. Some members question whether vouchers really work.
It took seven or eight months for the Senate to pass its bill, House Republican Policy Committee Chairman David Reed noted.
“To expect the House to do it in two weeks or three weeks doesn’t seem realistic at this point,” said Reed, R-Indiana County.
The House has devoted much of its fall to Marcellus Shale legislation, but will begin its discussions of vouchers next week, in closed-door party caucuses. Reed said the GOP team will use that time to gauge members on what they will and won’t support in the Senate bill.
GOP sources have said it is likely that the Senate bill will be amended to a program that is smaller in scope to win support. Some want a hard expiration date so that policy-makers can review the results and see if tuition vouchers are worth keeping or expanding.
Last week, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny County, wouldn’t commit on a vote on an education reform plan before the year’s end.
Voucher supporters aren’t giving up.
Students First put out a Tweet on Friday urging voucher supporters to call Turzai’s offices: “Even if you have to keep dialing yourself, we need calls!!! The kids need us!!! We are so close.”