Corbett's announcement breathed new life into a proposal that has floundered for a year: introducing taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers to help Pennsylvania's poorest families transfer their children from the worst-performing public schools to other public, private or parochial schools.
But say voucher and controversy crackles. Perhaps that is why Corbett dubbed the vouchers "opportunity scholarships." Will struggling city schools be forced to improve? Or will they be bankrupted? Will upstate schools get overlooked? Will children gain or lose?
Pollster G. Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College said the battle mirrors the voucher debate 16 years ago, which did not break on party lines.
"Some rural lawmakers don't like it because they won't be able to avail themselves of the money in their districts. Others think it's a way to get public schools to be competitive," said Madonna. "There is division by region, by ideology, by partisanship."
The list of lawmakers with Corbett on Tuesday told a tale: all were Republican, only one from the southeastern part of the state, and none from Philadelphia - whose schools would be most affected. The legislature's leading voucher proponents, Sens. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.) and Jeff Piccola (R., Dauphin), were absent, though Williams issued a statement of support later.
The plan would reroute to a student's new school 75 percent of the per-student state dollars that would go to the student's home district. Though Corbett didn't provide figures, estimates of such vouchers are in the $7,000-to-9,000 range.
According to last year's figures, the vast majority of the poorest-performing schools - 91 of 144 - were in Philadelphia.
The fact that the plan is focused on the poorest families makes it more palatable to some - but less attractive to legislators who had hoped some vouchers would be available to middle-class families.
Even voucher champion Piccola appeared lukewarm, saying he didn't attend Corbett's event because it was "not newsworthy." He predicted an uphill fight.
"A lot of heavy lifting needs to be done," he said.
Of the few Democratic lawmakers from Philadelphia who support vouchers, among the most vocal is Rep. Tony Payton - who says he is deluged daily with calls from parents in his district who want to move their children out of troubled city schools but can't afford to.
On the GOP side, the House, Senate, and governor all differ a bit on just how much money to shift from public schools, and by what formula.
A principal question is: Can rural lawmakers - a major bloc in the legislature - support a program designed to help few, if any, children in their districts?
Rep. Jim Christiana (R., Beaver), who was at Corbett's announcement, said that while no families in his district would get vouchers, he wants to improve schools elsewhere. "We don't just legislate for our districts. We look at statewide policy," he said. "I'm proud of the public schools, but parents want options."
Rep. Thomas Quigley (R., Montgomery), too, was with the governor. He said Corbett's plan has a better chance than others because it is narrowly directed at the worst-performing schools.
That "is certainly a direction that more House Republicans will feel comfortable with," he said. "Something like this that is scaled back and targets failing schools is more palatable."
Meanwhile, lobby groups on both sides of the issue are revving up for another round of battle over the airwaves, in campaign coffers and door-to-door in the Capitol.
In some respects, the fight pits traditional defenders of public education, such as the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the state's largest teachers' union, against newcomers such as Freedomworks, the Washington-based advocacy group, and Students First, a pro-voucher group formed 18 months ago.
"If you give the money to the parents, then they can walk with their feet, it forces change," said Dawn Chavous, who heads Students First.
If voucher bills move this fall, "we will be doing everything we can to show that vouchers are bad policy," said PSEA spokesman Wythe Keever. "We're not going to tip our hand on when or if."
Corbett said the latest test scores prove that the status quo isn't working. He said that if "opportunity scholarships" are enacted, failing schools can avoid losing students and funding by getting better.
"You lose the money or you get competitive," the governor said Tuesday. "We are changing the paradigm of how we spend the money."
Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inquirer staff writer Angela Couloumbis contributed to this article.