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Pennsylvania

State voucher plan raises questions

| Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011

Angela Bey would be tempted to send her son to a high school such as Central Catholic in Oakland if Gov. Tom Corbett's education plan passes.

Right now parochial school is out of reach for Roamell Bey, an eighth-grader at Wilkinsburg Middle School.

"Since I'm not financially stable, I can't do that," Bey, 42, said Wednesday.

Corbett this week proposed using taxpayer money to help low-income families in underperforming schools such as Wilkinsburg to send their children to the public, private or parochial school of their choice. It would make students from schools struggling the most -- the bottom 5 percent -- eligible for vouchers, although Corbett's office is still determining which schools those are and what criteria to use.

Schools such as Wilkinsburg, Duquesne Consolidated School and McKeesport High School would seem to be locks to make the list. None has met state standards in the past five years under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. All were eligible in similar legislation from Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, R-Dauphin County, that the Senate rejected.

Even if Corbett's bill passes -- and he said "significant support" exists in the Legislature -- hurdles remain. Bey, for one, doubts she could get her son, 13, to leave his school.

"We discussed that before he went to the seventh-grade," Bey said. "I told him I wanted to send him to a different school and he wanted to know why. He said, 'My sisters graduated from there, why can't I?' "

Tuition at Central Catholic is about $8,000 a year. Whether one of Corbett's vouchers would cover the cost is yet to be decided. Piccola's bill would have given Wilkinsburg students just enough money to go to Central Catholic without other assistance.

Oakland Catholic's tuition runs about $9,000. On the higher end is the private Winchester Thurston School in Shadyside, where a spokeswoman said about one-third of students receive financial aid. The tuition ranges from $20,000 to $24,000 depending on grade level.

Under Corbett's plan a family of four with an annual income of $29,000 or less would be eligible for a voucher.

Corbett did not outline whether his plan would require schools to accept students with vouchers and, if not, under what conditions they could reject them.

Alan Johnson, assistant superintendent in the Woodland Hills School District, said it wouldn't be opposed to enrolling students from other districts as long as it doesn't hurt other public schools.

"We're all in this together," he said. "It's important the rules are equitable for everyone involved. That would be things like capping the number of students that could leave a district so it wouldn't take it to the point where it couldn't function.

"And for districts receiving students, (to ensure) it won't have to take on so many that it wouldn't be able to deal with them within their existing infrastructure."

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association yesterday released its own ideas for school reform, offering 11 suggestions for improving student achievement that fall into three categories: recruiting, preparing and improving teachers; preparing students for academic success; and providing schools with tools for success.

It also echoed Johnson's concerns that students abandoning struggling districts en masse would only hasten their old schools' demise.

Jeanette Jackson of Wilkinsburg said her children would never leave the district even if vouchers allowed them to do so. When the family was preparing to move, her daughter Sarah, 17, and son Mark Lee Jr., 14, insisted their parents stay within the Wilkinsburg district.

"We've gotten really good results from Wilkinsburg," Jackson said. "I think sometimes it's the children themselves and the families they're involved in."

Additional Information:

Projections

Gov. Tom Corbett's office estimates the state will spend about $164 million in tax dollars over four years for vouchers. The numbers are based on the projected number of students who would accept vouchers.

First year: $21 million for 4,100 students

Second year: $61 million for 11,500 students

Third year: $41 million for 12,800 students

Fourth year: $41 million for 14,200 students

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