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The New Age Begins

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Thumbnail image for Tom Corbett.jpgThis much we know for sure.  Gov. Corbett favors vouchers, though he does not call them that in his new education plan.  He calls them "opportunity scholarships."

And that's where the clarity ends the fog begins.

The governor outlined the broad contours of the plan this week, but was short on specifics -- namely, the questions every parent will have: How much money will they get if they qualify?  And will it be enough to allow them to transfer out of a failing public school into a private or parochial one?

The governor did not say how much each grant will be, nor did he say how much the whole thing would cost.  My bet is it will cost the state a lot less than the voucher bills currently under consideration in the House and Senate because he targets the plan to 141 of the poorest performing public schools in the state -- 91 of which are in Philadelphia. He obviously wants to start small (and cheap.)

This has become a typical tactic of the new governor.  Talk in broad generalities, hold off on the details. And the devil, as we know, is in those details.

As to the generalities, Corbett has sent a clear enough message with his latest proposals:

he is for vouchers; he is in favor of charters (he wants a state board, not local school districts approve all charter applications); he wants to replace the current method of teacher evaluation with a new, presumably stricter one, that is based in part on student performance; and he wants to expand a tax break program for businesses that contribute to scholarship funds.

In other words, he is staking out a totally different position than his predecessors, Ed Rendell, who was a patron saint of public schools -- and of state funding thereof.

Rendell's reign of eight years will be looked back upon as a golden age, often literally, for public ed. He increased the state subsidy time and again -- and districts and teachers benefited tremendously. During the Rendell years, school spending outstripped inflation -- and enrollment (Statewide enrollment actually declined during the same period.)

Corbett sent a message last year that the good times were over, targeting state subsidies to basic and secondary education to make up a $1 billion hole in his budget.

This year, he is staking out his, um, philosophy for going forward:

To say it is a Republican philosophy, though, (and therefore worthy of knee-jerk opposition) would be wrong.

Except for the voucher part, what Corbett favors is very much what the Obama administration has favored when it comes to public education: more accountability for teachers, setting goals for students and schools, a willingness to embrace charters as an alternative.

When it comes to vouchers, Corbett is an incrementalist. The Senate and House versions of vouchers would spread them to a broader swath of students. He targets the worst of the worst schools in the Commonwealth and poor students, though the plan does allow for parents who are above the poverty line to qualify for some aid. (Again, we await details on how much.)

What does the Corbett announcement this week mean?

For starters, it means that some version of vouchers is likely to pass. They will become a reality, which has the Catholic bishops applauding. Vouchers could help fill those thousands of empty seats in Catholic schools (though probably with non-Catholics).

It means a more permissive stance towards charters. Since the original charter law passed in 1997, most school boards (Philadelphia is an exception) have been loath to approve charters under the very real fear that they will lure students from the public schools. They have a right to be fearful. A poll of charter parents, done by Pew's Philadelphia research Initiative last year, showed they loved the charters. They even love the ones that do not perform well.

It means an end to the evaluations of teachers on a two-point scale: satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Under the current system, about 99 percent of the teachers are rated satisfactory -- even if they are sending forth wave after wave of students who cannot read nor do math at their grade level. Corbett wants to add categories, such as "failing" and "in need of improvement" along with good and excellent.

These are all good things -- certainly for parents, especially poor parents who aspire for more for their children and believe education is the path to a better life. For decades, the educational establishment paid little attention to these parents. They knew what was best for these children, even when it wasn't.

But the politicians are paying attention and Corbett's plan is further proof that a new age has arrived.

-- Tom Ferrick

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