YORK, Pa. - Planting himself squarely in the middle of the debate over school choice, Gov. Corbett on Tuesday proposed providing taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers for poor students in failing public schools.
The proposal also would overhaul the way teachers are evaluated, paid, and promoted.
Corbett's plan would extend vouchers to students in the bottom 5 percent of poor-performing schools and whose families earn 130 percent or less of the federal poverty rate. For a family of four, that means an annual income of $29,000 or less.
Vouchers could be used for private, public, or charter schools. The school that accepts a student would get 75 percent of the state funding, while the student's school district would get the remainder.
Under Corbett's plan, students at about 140 schools in the state, including elementary schools, would be eligible for vouchers, administration officials said. Of that number, according state school-performance records, about 100 would be from this region, including 91 in Philadelphia.
The program would cost about $21 million the first year and could involve an estimated 4,100 students, said Tim Eller, a spokesman for the Department of Education.
Eller said he did not know how much each pupil voucher would be worth.
Speaking at Lincoln Charter School, Corbett said that while many public schools are successful, too many have fallen down on the fundamental job of educating children.
"We can't continue down the same path and think we are going get a different result," the governor said. "We have to think and act smarter. We have to have the will to do that."
The governor chose for his announcement the 12-year-old Lincoln Charter, an elementary school with 750 students in a working-class neighborhood, because it is the only public school in the state outside of Philadelphia to convert to a charter school, according to state officials. As a charter school, it has met state standards in reading and math four times in the last nine years.
His proposal, while light on specifics, also would lift the $75 million cap on the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, which gives tax breaks to businesses that provide tuition funding for low-income students. It also would shift the power for granting charter-school licenses from school boards to a state commission, while increasing accountability for academic performance in charter schools.
Whether Corbett can win the needed votes for his plan in the GOP-controlled legislature remains a question.
Bills introduced this year remain bottled up amid disputes that have crossed party lines.
Pushback and praise elsewhere came swiftly Tuesday; pro-voucher groups issued statements of support, while teacher unions and the state school board association said the proposals would drain resources from struggling public schools.
Opponents said schools are reeling from the governor's slashing hundreds of millions for public education in his last budget.
"The governor didn't provide many details," said Michael Crossey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the largest teachers' union. "But I know for certain that the $860 million in state funding cuts have forced the public schools to increase class sizes and cut programs. We need to restore those cuts, not spend more money on initiatives that don't work."
The Philadelphia School Partnership, an organization that aims to raise $100 million in five years to add more seats to high-performing schools in the city - public, private, or charter - applauded Corbett's proposal.
"What we like is that the governor is coming out boldly and saying, 'Let's do all of this,' " said Mark Gleason, the partnership's executive director. "What we like especially, he is focusing on choice, on accountability, and on quality."
Vouchers, which Corbett christened "opportunity scholarships" Tuesday, are only one piece of his plan.
The governor said the current system of evaluating teachers is "merely a rubber stamp" and should be scrapped. He noted that educators now only receive a "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory" rating, and that in the 2009-10 school year, 99.2 percent of teachers got a passing grade.
Corbett said he wanted to base teacher evaluations in part on student performance, and use that as a basis for deciding merit pay, tenure, and future employment. New ratings would include "distinguished," "needs improvement," and "failing."
After his speech, few legislators rushed to stake out positions.
The top two Republicans in the Senate - President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) and Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) - both said they support the concept of giving choices to students in failing schools, yet both were notably absent from Corbett's speech.
Also absent was Sen. Jeff Piccola (R., Dauphin), who pushed for a stronger and more expansive voucher proposal this year. Speaking later, Piccola said that while Corbett's ideas were similar to those he and others had proposed, he supports the fact the governor is now urging action on them.
Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.), who also advocated for the more expansive voucher bill, said he would back the governor's plan and urged colleagues to give it a chance.
The House has been more hostile toward the voucher issue, but the presence of Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) at Corbett's speech seemed to suggest that vouchers will at least be on the agenda.
Corbett's proposals were met with a mixture of praise and condemnation from area school board members, and neutrality from the Philadelphia School District.
Philadelphia's acting superintendent, Leroy Nunery II, said he "wouldn't put a value on it, good or bad," even though it could mean sweeping changes for the troubled district.
"We're all for the whole idea of systemic change, but for the better, not change for change's sake," said Nunery, adding that Philadelphia has seen some early positives from its recent Renaissance initiative, which is restructuring some low-performing schools internally and handing others over to charters. "Those could in fact deliver changed and improved schools for kids and have more sweeping and broad effect."
Keith Knauss, a school board member in Chester County's prosperous and high-achieving Unionville-Chadds Ford district, said he supported the Corbett initiatives.
"I like school choice; for parents to have the most flexibility and the dollars to flow wherever the student goes," he said, adding that making teacher evaluations more stringent "is long overdue."
Lawrence Feinberg, a school board member in Delaware County's Haverford School District, said Corbett was proposing the wrong answers to public-school problems.
"I believe that public education should be for all students," he said. "Private schools are not; parochial schools are not."
Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934, email@example.com, or @AngelasInk on Twitter.
Inquirer staff writer Kristen A. Graham contributed to this article.