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Published in Print: May 12, 1999, as Pa. Adopts Budget With Funding for Vouchers

Pa. Adopts Budget With Funding for Vouchers

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Gov. Tom Ridge celebrated at least a temporary victory last week in Pennsylvania's heated debate over school choice, when he signed a $19 billion state budget that included $63 million for a statewide voucher pilot program.

The funding would cover the first year of a five-year, $600 million plan to provide vouchers to needy families beginning this coming fall. The vouchers, which could be used in public, private, or religious schools, would then be phased in for wealthier families.

"I'm eager to join this latest battle to win school choice for Pennsylvania's parents," Mr. Ridge, a Republican, said in a prepared statement after the legislature passed the fiscal 2000 budget. "The momentum is on our side."

Despite the governor's enthusiasm, though, the fight is not over. Debate on the legislation that is needed to authorize the voucher plan could begin this month, and the outcome is far from certain. Meanwhile, late last month, Florida became the first state to approve a statewide voucher program. ("Florida OKs First Statewide Voucher Plan," May 5, 1999.)

"We're very concerned about vouchers," said Thomas J. Gentzel, the assistant executive director of government relations for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. "But our reading is that they don't have much support."

Special Education

Mr. Gentzel argued that lawmakers hurt the governor's cause during their budget talks by taking the $63 million for vouchers from what could have been spent on special education.

"It will be hard for the administration to argue that they're not pushing vouchers at the expense of public schools," Mr. Gentzel said.

But Ridge administration officials point out that the $6.3 billion K-12 budget the governor signed May 5 actually raises special education funding to $720 million. That is $42 million, or 6.2 percent, above last year's amount and far more than the 2 percent hike in overall K-12 funding. The budget also includes $35 million for the first year of a new four-year, $100 million reading initiative. If the authorizing bill for the voucher program fails, the money for it could be carried over to fiscal 2001 or added to supplemental funding for fiscal 2000.

House Majority Leader John M. Perzel, a Republican, was unsympathetic to critics who say special education was shortchanged.

"They want dollar-for-dollar reimbursement for whatever they call special education," he said. "I'd be some kind of a nitwit to do that."

But Mr. Perzel was doubtful that lawmakers were ready to approve the pilot voucher program, or Mr. Ridge's separate bid to make vouchers optional in a limited number of low-performing districts.

Mr. Perzel is offering his own plan to give troubled districts up to two years to improve before making vouchers available. "[The governor] wants to give a voucher right away," Mr. Perzel said. "I think it's going to be tougher to argue against [vouchers] if schools have a chance to improve."

Vol. 18, Issue 35, Page 20

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