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Published in Print: March 24, 1999, as Ridge Wants 'Supervouchers' in Pa.

Ridge Wants 'Supervouchers' in Pa.

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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge is hammering out the details of a statewide voucher plan that he says would give failing schools--and the students in them--the tools to succeed.

In a press conference in Chester, Pa., on March 11, the Republican governor said his proposed Academic Recovery Act would help academically troubled districts by loosening state regulations and granting them certain freedoms.

The districts would be allowed, for example, to design their own charter schools, contract with independent organizations to run or work with individual schools, and hire qualified administrators or managers who don't have state certification. Under state regulations, district-designed charter schools could also hire qualified teachers without state certification.

The districts' students, in turn, would be eligible to receive "supervouchers" from the state, ranging from $2,000 to $4,000 a year, to pay tuition at any public, private, or religious school. Voucher amounts would vary according to the state's per-pupil spending in the qualifying districts.

"It gives powerful choices to school districts, and it gives powerful choices to parents," said Gretchen Toner, a spokeswoman for the governor. "It would allow districts to steer their own course."

Faulty Tools?

Under the governor's plan, student-attendance rates, dropout rates, and other measures would be used to identify qualifying districts for a "watch list." If the legislation were enacted now, eight districts, including Philadelphia and nearby Chester and several districts from the so-called Rust Belt region in western Pennsylvania, would be placed on the list. Districts that failed to show academic improvement after a certain period of time would qualify for state takeover.

Critics of the plan contend that allowing districts to hire unlicensed employees could serve to exacerbate existing problems, rather than improve them. The choices given to troubled districts under the plan "wouldn't give them useful tools, and it certainly wouldn't give them more resources," said Wythe H. Keever, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

"This seems to be less focused on helping these districts and more a plan to get vouchers in through a backdoor approach," Mr. Keever added.

Legislation on Mr. Ridge's proposal is expected to be formally introduced in coming weeks.

Vol. 18, Issue 28, Page 19

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