2011-02-24 / Local & State

Corbett Administration Backs School Vouchers

By Peter Jackson

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Gov. Tom Corbett’s monthold administration on Wednesday officially endorsed the use of taxpayers’ money to enable low-income students in failing public schools to transfer to private schools, but stopped short of backing a more far-reaching legislative plan.

State Education Secretary nominee Ronald Tomalis, the first speaker at a Senate Education Committee hearing that drew a standingroom only crowd, said targeting school vouchers at lowincome youngsters in the worst-performing public schools would intensify competition within the state’s educational system to produce “exponential benefits’’ for all students.

“With competition comes diversity, and with diversity adoption of programs to meet the individual needs of the student,’’ he said.

Tomalis did not endorse a bill sponsored by Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, the committee’s chairman, that within three years would allow any low-income public-school student to use the per-pupil subsidy the state government sends to his or her school district to attend a different private, public or religious school. Tomalis said the bill “starts the conversation’’ about how to expand choices for students.

Piccola, R-Dauphin, declared his bill would create an “educational free market’’ that would greatly expand op- tions for students and derided the present system as a “monopoly’’ guarded by teacher unions and school boards.

“There are thousands of open seats in nonpublic schools, ready to educate kids trapped in failure because of their ZIP code,’’ he said.

Sen. Anthony Williams, a Philadelphian who campaigned on the issue of school choice in a losing bid for the Democratic nomination for governor last year and is a cosponsor of Piccola’s bill, said the issue is about civil rights.

Opponents said the bill could cost taxpayers as much as $1 billion a year once fully implemented. It also would undermine public education by draining money from local districts; would fail to hold the non-public schools accountable for students’ academic progress or how the voucher money is spent; and would leave it up to those schools to decide which students should be accepted, they said.

Corbett, a Republican who previously was state attorney general, had supported vouchers for low-income students in failing schools during his 2010 campaign for governor. Tomalis’ comments made it official.

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