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Not the way to get votes

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Sunday, June 5, 2011
 

HARRISBURG

Voucher advocates thus far have botched the opportunity.

Well-funded for the first time to stand up against public employee unions, groups advocating vouchers for school choice should be at or near the goal line. With a governor, Tom Corbett, favoring vouchers, and a GOP-controlled Senate and House, this appeared the best shot at enacting vouchers.

Better even than when Tom Ridge, another Republican, served as governor and twice pushed for vouchers.

But the bill is stalled in the Senate, where the plan was to shoot for early passage, then battle it out in the House.

Supporters might still prevail in a program to provide vouchers enabling lower- and middle-income kids to attend private or parochial schools.

But it sure doesn't look like it right now.

The effort came up short in the Senate when Senate Republicans split over issues of size and cost.

The House then made its statement by passing a bill expanding a business tax credit program for educational scholarships, which has existed since 2001.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin County, said that was dead on arrival.

And then, voucher supporters started doing what no one has done for a while around here -- targeting the fence-sitting Republicans with robocalls, flooding their offices with phone calls and threats to fund primary opponents.

At least two GOP senators -- Lisa Baker and Stewart Greenleaf -- were accused in radio ads of pandering to teachers unions.

It's rough-and-tumble politics, more resembling a congressional-level or statewide political campaign.

Not surprising, given that a Washington, D.C., group -- FreedomWorks -- is one of the groups leading the charge. Others include Students First-PA, the Commonwealth Foundation and Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania.

Some found the campaign-style lobbying on an issue refreshing.

But ask any lobbyist at the Capitol and they'll tell you it's not the way to get votes.

Bullying lawmakers like Republican Sens. Pat Vance, Kim Ward and Iraq veteran John Pippy won't work.

And Lisa Baker?

As one GOP insider told me, "Beating up on Lisa Baker• You've got to be kidding. She's one of the nicest people in Harrisburg. It makes no sense."

Corbett wasn't directing the effort. But he should have spotted the tenor of it early on and called off the dogs.

The irony is that these "fence-sitters" representing the views of their districts are by and large sympathetic to the argument that something must be done to help kids in failing urban schools.

But it's been S.B. 1 or the highway.

The problem is that the scorched-earth approach of die-hard voucher advocates builds resentment.

It makes lawmakers who've been smacked less willing to compromise.

A blend of an expanded tax-credit program with a modest voucher program for low-income kids in the worst schools probably would fly.

But now the problem is timing.

If vouchers aren't done in connection with the state budget, there's no leverage.

It will become an issue for the fall -- an eternity away in state politics -- and closer to the next re-election campaign for House members and some senators.

Chances of passage diminish a bit more every day that the matter is postponed.

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