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Published in Print: May 16, 2001, as Pa. OKs Private-Tutoring Grants to Parents

Pa. OKs Private-Tutoring Grants to Parents

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An ardent proponent of school vouchers, Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania has failed three times to persuade the state legislature to go along with him and allow the use of public money to pay for private school tuition. But last week, the Republican governor agreed to a hike in teacher pensions in exchange for a package of education bills that breaks some new ground in assisting private education.

One part of Mr. Ridge's education package—grants to parents for after-school tutoring—resembles what currently remains before Congress of President Bush's call for vouchers. Another allows corporations to get state tax credits for donations to groups that finance scholarships to private schools, or to public schools outside a student's home district.

With teachers dropping their opposition to Mr. Ridge's proposals early last week, both that legislation and the pension increases quickly passed the House and the Senate by healthy margins.

Mr. Ridge and his allies were gratified by the results of the deal. "In terms of moving the ball forward, it's been the best of times for those who believe in school choice," said Tim Reeves, a spokesman for the governor.

But the state's largest teachers' union and Democratic lawmakers played down the significance of the education measures and talked up the worth of the pension hike. The original proposal for the increase had embraced only state employees and legislators. The latter have not had their pensions adjusted since 1974.

"To the average retired teacher in Pennsylvania, it will mean $7,000 to $10,000 in additional pension every year for the rest of their lives," said Wythe Keever, the spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. Teachers will also increase their contributions under the plan.

As part of the deal, PSEA officials agreed to recommend to the group's governing body that it not sue the state over the scholarship tax credits or the tutoring grants, and that it withdraw its support for a lawsuit challenging the state's 2-year-old authority to take over failing districts.

Democrats, who are in the minority in both chambers, said they would live with the package for the sake of the pension increases as well as an increase of 10 percent, or $78 million, in state special education funding that it would provide.

"We would have preferred a vastly different set of ideas for education reform," said Michael Manzo, the spokesman for House Minority Leader H. William DeWeese, a Democrat. "But we also recognize the political reality."

The special education funding, especially, would have been "a tough thing to vote against if you are from a rural district and watching money dry up," said Mr. Manzo, whose boss represents the rural southwestern corner of the state. Mr. Manzo said the five school districts in Mr. DeWeese's district can expect to get special education funding increases ranging from 13 percent to 21 percent under the plan.

Views Divided

Gov. Ridge's program to offer corporations tax credits for donations to groups that provide scholarships was described by some observers as a back door to private school vouchers. Some saw the tutoring plan in a similar light.

"Tutoring grants and corporation tax credits are viewed, and I think correctly, as a step toward vouchers," said Patricia Crawford, a spokeswoman for the 39,000-student Pittsburgh public schools. "As a result, certain segments of the community are really in favor of them, in fact jubilant, while educators in public school districts really see this as a move in the wrong direction."

Under the plan, donors could also win credits not only for financing tuition to private schools, but also for underwriting the tuition costs charged by public schools to educate children from outside their districts. Scholarship recipients would have to meet income limits that top out at $70,000 for a family of four. A second, less controversial part of the program would allow corporations to get tax credits for money spent on innovative programs in public schools.

Altogether, the tax credits are expected to cost the state $30 million next fiscal year, double the amount that the governor originally proposed. The legislature increased the governor's proposal for a 50 percent tax credit to 75 percent, and to 90 percent for donors making multiyear funding commitments.

Arizona is the only other state that allows tax credits—which subtract money from a tax statement's bottom line— for donations to private-school-scholarship funds, but there the donors must be individuals, according to information provided by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

The provision for tax credits linked to public school donations appears to be one of a kind, said Michael P. Griffith, an analyst with the ECS.

Also apparently unique, he said, is Rr. Ridge's measure to provide grants to parents of struggling students for after-school tutoring. Arizona voters passed a similar provision last fall as part of a sales-tax increase earmarked for education, and another is pending in Congress. under the Arizona law and the federal proposal, however, the tutoring aid is for children who attend failing schools, rather than for children who fail state tests regardless of their schools' performance.

Under Pennsylvania's program, set to cost $23.6 million annually, parents who met income guidelines of up to $70,000 for a family of four could receive up to $500 per child each year to pay for tutoring, if the child is in grades 3-6 and failing standardized tests.

Rep. John M. Perzel, the Republican who is the majority leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, said he didn't mind that the programs were characterized as precursors to vouchers. "If we look at what we've done here in Pennsylvania, it's remarkable," he said. "Something has to change here, and I think these are good opportunities for kids."

A third measure provides for the establishment of online tests for teachers that are designed to assess knowledge in reading and, for some teachers, mathematics. The tests are to be taken anonymously, with 20 percent of the state's 115,000 practicing teachers taking them each year for five years until all teachers are tested.

"'The goal of the assessment is to ensure that the estimated $100 million spent annually on professional development is being targeted where needs are greatest," said Daniel F. Langan, a spokesman for the state education department.

"Everyone's searching for a way to direct professional- development dollars," added Mr. Griffith. "If this turns out successful, other states are likely to try it, too."

Mr. Ridge's education package, which the governor had not yet signed into law late last week, also includes provisions allowing school districts to create "independent schools," similar to charter schools.

Because of the state's mechanism for financing charter schools, most charter schools in the state are start-ups. Under the new law, parents, teachers and others could form a governing body for an existing school and contract with a district to run it free of most regulations.

Vol. 20, Issue 36, Pages 1,25

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