Governor Tom Corbett is now, for the second time, proposing a plan for Pennsylvania public school reform. His initiative involves a voucher program for low-income students in failing public schools to attend private schools, an expansion of the Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and better oversight of charter schools and teacher evaluations.
“When we have failing schools, we know we have failing students,” Corbett said in the Pennsylvania Independent, a public journalism project. “We can’t continue down this same path and think we’re going to get a different result.” According to the Pennsylvania Independent, Pennsylvania has 144 failing public schools wherein “fewer than 53 percent of students are at grade level in reading and math.” Corbett feels that, by introducing a voucher program that allows students to choose a private or charter school to attend, the competition between schools will force the failing schools to improve. The current educational system in Pennsylvania gives no inherent incentives for schools to improve on their own.
Opponents to this voucher program, however, argue that there is no way for failing schools to redeem themselves when Corbett is slashing $860 million in public school funding this year in an attempt to balance the state’s budget without raising taxes. Taxpayer money, in fact, is what will fund this voucher program. State money will be given to private schools in the form of vouchers for those schools to use any way they please, rather than how the state of Pennsylvania dictates.
In response to that last argument, Corbett also plans to expand the EITC program by an unspecified amount, up from its current $75 million contributions. The EITC is a corporate-funded program that gives scholarships to families with an annual income of less than $60,000. This program, too, is aimed at helping families pay tuition for private or religious schools.
Corbett’s voucher program is expected to cost $21 million in its first year. During this time, vouchers will only be offered to low-income students in Pennsylvania’s 144 schools classified as failing. In the second year, the program’s cost will rise to $82 million and be offered to all students in those failing districts. Finally, by its fourth year, the program will cost $103 million and be offered to about 14,200 Pennsylvania students. The private schools taking in these new voucher-funded students, however, are not required to accept the students. Students must still meet their new school’s grade requirements.
Eligibility for the voucher program is based on family income. A family of four making $29,000 or less can receive a voucher for their school-of-choice’s full tuition. Families making up to $41,000 annually can receive a voucher for 75 percent of their children’s tuition.
In addition to the statewide voucher program, Corbett intends to create a new commission to oversee charter schools. He also wants to overhaul the state’s teacher evaluation process and instate an incentive program for effective teachers. Specifically, Corbett wants to see student achievement and classroom observation take a stronger role in teacher evaluation.
Corbett’s opponents retort that, while education reform is an important issue for everyone, his plan has a lot of gaps in its implementation and they don’t trust it. “Reform should start with using ideas in education that have a long record of success and not rely on concepts where the evidence of academic achievement is inconclusive,” Senator Vince Hughes said.
Junior Emily Bancroft, a math education major, supports the voucher program for the choice it provides to these low-income students. “Things work for some students that don’t for other students,” she said. However, Bancroft criticized public education’s strict standardization to schooling, saying, “A downside to public school is that they’re stuck in standardization … In private schools, you can teach what you think is important.” She felt that sending students away from these failing schools and decreasing their budget was counterintuitive to saving them. She suggested it would be more beneficial to send help into those schools rather than send students away. More teachers’ aides and more one-on-one attention could do a lot for public schools.
Corbett is pushing for this education voucher program to be passed in Pennsylvania legislature this fall, in time to be enacted for the 2012-13 school year.