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Ridge Proposes 1st State Voucher Program for Pa.

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Pennsylvania would run the first statewide school-voucher program, promising to help pay for children to attend private and religious schools, under a surprise proposal Gov. Tom Ridge announced last week.

Governor Ridge, who took office in January, campaigned last fall for school vouchers and was widely expected to propose a pilot initiative.

But the Republican Governor surprised both his critics and supporters last week when he unveiled a budget that would make vouchers available throughout Pennsylvania within three years to parents who met certain income requirements.

Mr. Ridge's plan would make $38.5 million available in the first year for tuition vouchers that could be used at private, religious, or out-of-district public schools. Targeted initially to the one-third of the state's 501 school districts with the highest percentages of welfare recipients, the program would quickly include the entire state.

To convert his plan into law, Mr. Ridge will have to overcome massive opposition already organized against it. And its statewide scope is likely to boost the political stakes, observers said, and make the program more vulnerable than a small-scale experiment would be to court challenges.

Analysts said the Governor's grand design is almost guaranteed to make Pennsylvania's voucher debate the most significant of those now under way around the country.

Seven other states are seriously considering voucher legislation, said Connie L. Koprowiczsic dl, an education-policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures. But those bills call for limited or experimental efforts.

"I don't think anybody else is going to take a shot at implementing something statewide," she said.

Critics were quick to argue that Mr. Ridge's program would be statewide in name only. It would do little to give poor families and rural parents new school choices, they contended.

Voucher proponents, however, praised the Governor's move as a bold strike. Doubts raised during the campaign about his commitment to vouchers dissolved in the wake of his announcement.

All-or-Nothing Approach

"It's a courageous stand," said Jay Devine, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia. "It's hard to take on the status quo like he's doing."

Despite expectations to the contrary, Mr. Ridge has always favored making vouchers available statewide because he believes all Pennsylvania schools can benefit from an injection of "market dynamics," said Charles B. Zogby, the Governor's policy director.

"When Poland and the other Eastern-bloc countries moved to market systems," he said, "they didn't say, 'Let's try out capitalism in a few cities first.' It's the same with schools and choice."

Details of the program have not been ironed out, Mr. Zogby said, but it is expected that any family making about $25,000 a year or less would be eligible. That would guarantee that at least half of the state's families with children could qualify, he said.

"It's more than just a program for the poor," noted Henry A. Olsen, the executive director of the Commonwealth Foundation, a Pennsylvania research group that supports vouchers.

Mr. Ridge's critics, however, argued that because much of Pennsylvania is rural, many parents would have no real alternatives. The voucher amounts--as much as $1,000 for high school students and up to $700 for primary school students--would be too little to help parents move their children to private schools, they said.

"The way it is set up means that nobody will move anywhere," said Donald F. Morabito, the chief lobbyist for the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

Philadelphia is one of the districts Mr. Ridge has targeted in the program's first year, and the city could prove a critical test case. It is wrestling with new reforms under a new superintendent, David W. Hornbeck, and boasts one of the largest Catholic school systems in the country, providing a ready-made alternative for parents.

If vouchers become available in the city and its four neighboring counties, parochial high schools alone could absorb an additional 20,000 students, Mr. Devine said.

'Trench Warfare'

A coalition of 35 organizations within the state--including most school groups--already has mobilized to fight Mr. Ridge's plan as a violation of the state Constitution. In 1991, a similar alliance of groups beat back statewide-voucher legislation in a struggle that some said was even more emotional than the state's battle over restrictions on abortions. (See Education Week, Jan. 8, 1992.)

This year's fight "will be much the same," predicted G. Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Millersville University. "It'll be trench warfare."

Mr. Madonna and others said the bill should clear the Senate easily. Republicans hold an eight-member majority in the chamber. Its fate in the House--where Republicans have a slim 102-to-101 advantage--is a tossup.

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