As Pa. budget deadline nears, GOP legislators vow action on thorny school issues

Posted: June 08, 2012

HARRISBURG — They don't have a state budget deal yet, but Gov. Corbett and top Republican legislators appear to be in agreement on one matter: a number of so-called education reform bills will finally come up for a vote before the legislature breaks for the summer.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) said Thursday that "there is broad agreement" on moving several pieces of legislation to Corbett's desk before the budget's July 1 deadline, including a bill that would change the way charter schools are regulated; one that would expand a state program that gives tax breaks to companies for underwriting scholarship programs; and one that would establish a legislative commission to develop a new distribution formula for some special-education funding.

Also a possibility, said Pileggi, is tackling a bill that would toughen criteria for evaluating Pennsylvania public school teachers.

But one of the most far-reaching and controversial education issues in the Capitol — school vouchers — does not appear, at least for now, to be on track for getting vetted in the next three weeks, GOP legislative leaders conceded Thursday.

"Something's possible" on vouchers, said House Speaker Sam Smith (R., Jefferson), "but I wouldn't put it in the ‘highly likely' category."

Still, as they emerged Thursday from another round of closed-door budget talks with the governor, Smith and others said discussions have been focused on finally moving education bills that have long been a priority for Corbett.

In October of last year, the governor unveiled his education reform plan, calling for state-funded tuition vouchers to help lower-income families transfer their children out of failing public schools, as well as measures to ensure better teacher and student performance.

At the time, Corbett said he wanted to extend vouchers to students in the bottom 5 percent of failing schools whose families are at or near the federal poverty line. The voucher could be used to help pay for a child's education at a private, parochial, or charter school. The governor also said he wanted to craft a new system to base teacher evaluations in part on student performance, and use that as a basis for deciding merit pay, tenure and future employment.

Corbett also called for a statewide commission to evaluate and regulate charter schools. The panel would have the power to pull the plug on ones that are underperforming.

How many of those priorities actually emerge for a vote in the General Assembly over the next three weeks remains a question mark despite the consensus expressed yesterday by top lawmakers.

School-related bills that seek to make dramatic changes are always controversial, tend to take time and have been known to blow up at the last minute even when there is agreement.

On charter-school changes, for instance, the state House and Senate currently have competing bills, and it was unclear Thursday what compromise might emerge — and whether it would include Corbett's call for a state commission.

As for vouchers, there appears to be little, if any, consensus.

The Senate passed a voucher bill last fall that would also lift to $100 million the current $75 million funding cap on the popular Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, which gives tax breaks to businesses that provide scholarship aid to low-income students. But the House has shown little enthusiasm for tackling that one.

The uncertainty in Harrisburg has only intensified political pressure to move a voucher bill. Last month, hundreds of students, parents and teachers addressed Masses throughout the Philadelphia Archdiocese to urge parishioners to lobby their legislators to support school vouchers. The website PoliticsPA reported that one national pro-voucher group, FreedomWorks, launched a radio ad urging listeners to "tell Gov. Corbett and his friends in Harrisburg that you're tired of the excuses."

But on Thursday, Smith, the House speaker, threw cold water on any expectations: "EITC still maintains a lot stronger support and interest, [but] vouchers in the purest sense are less likely to be in that mix."

Contact Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @AngelasInk.

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