A year ago, Tom Ridge was a U.S. Congressman with a reputation as an earnest consensus-builder. In the 12 years he served in the House, he remained mostly a backbencher, sticking to nuts-and-bolts issues.
Now, five months into his term as Governor of Pennsylvania, Mr. Ridge is known throughout the state as the man who will rescue the state’s schools or destroy them. He is savior to some, Satan to others.
Such a metamorphosis began last month when Mr. Ridge unveiled his education plan. Within its pages, he promotes virtually every idea that has roiled the waters of education in the 1990’s.
Fourteen of the 19 new governors who took office this year are Republicans, but Mr. Ridge appears to have taken the party’s point position on education, joining G.O.P. veteran Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin.
Save Mr. Thompson’s school initiatives this year on tuition vouchers and decentralization, Mr. Ridge’s “is the most comprehensive plan out there,” said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform and a school-choice advocate. “And his vision is a lot bolder, too. He wants to break the mold.”
Under the umbrella of “choice,” Mr. Ridge has bundled plans to encourage charter schools, repeal school mandates, and allow districts to hire for-profit companies to run their schools.
He also aims to rewrite the state’s academic standards, the 53 “learning outcomes” put in place in 1993 after a tumultuous fight. (See related story.)
Flash Point of Plan
His plan’s centerpiece, however, is a $38.5 million budget proposal for state grants to help parents pay their children’s tuition at private, religious, or out-of-district public schools. Grants of between $350 and $1,000 would be targeted first for low-income families in poor districts. (See
State political pundits have speculated that a legislative victory on the tuition-grant program could make Mr. Ridge a national G.O.P. star and a dark-horse candidate for the party’s 1996 Vice Presidential nomination.
Even if the grant proposal loses, though, Mr. Ridge has served notice that he intends to set the education agenda in Pennsylvania. In the weeks before and after his plan was released, he campaigned across the state to drum up support.
In Pennsylvania’s many previous battles over education, governors generally chose a lower profile, noted Thomas J. Gentzel, the associate executive director for government relations at the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
“Like him or not, [Mr. Ridge] is playing a key leadership role in education,” he said. “We haven’t seen that in a while. He is staking his political future on the outcome of this program.”
At different times in the 1980’s, two leading Democrats, Bill Clinton, who was then Governor of Arkansas, and Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, made education their policy cornerstone. Each was hailed as an innovative leader, the country’s “education governor.”
But what Mr. Ridge will do to shake up and reform schools will make those men seem timid, said David W. Kirkpatrick, the executive director of a statewide school-choice coalition.
“With all due respect to Mr. Hunt and the others, this is the man,” he said of Mr. Ridge. “I have never met anyone in public life more committed to education.”
Mr. Ridge’s critics, though, say his interest in education will fade once a school-choice program becomes law. The Governor’s plan, for all its varied parts, would not bring sweeping change, they say.
“There is nothing really innovative about it,” said Sandra Zelno, a former president of the state chapter of the National PTA. “We’ve seen all these ideas introduced before here.”
A flaw in the choice plan is that about 80 percent of Pennsylvania’s 501 districts do not even have a nonpublic school within their boundaries, according to state school lobbyists.
And the state’s wealthy districts already are closing their doors to out-of-district transfers.
Charter schools, privatization, and limited regulations also would do little to ease the poverty that cripples schools in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and the state’s dying steel-mill towns, said Linda L. Croushore, the executive director of the Monongahela Valley Education Consortium, a school-equity advocacy group in western Pennsylvania.
“True opportunities make people feel that there is a sense of hope,” Ms. Croushore said, and grants of a few hundred dollars offer poor families little hope.
In his speech at the convention center here, Governor Ridge answered his critics indirectly with the words of the late Norman Vincent Peale, the author of The Power of Positive Thinking.
Mr. Peale was once approached by a young entrepreneur who “complained and moaned and lamented that he had no money” to start a business, the Governor told the audience.
Mr. Peale’s response, according to Mr. Ridge: “‘Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.’”
In an interview after the speech, Mr. Ridge explained that his plan is designed to flood the education marketplace with options.
“There are some very good schools in Pennsylvania,” he said, “and some outstanding teachers. And if you’ve got them, God bless you. But not everybody has access. If they don’t, let’s give them options.”
Such theory would face its biggest test in Philadelphia, the state’s largest district with 210,000 students. The city has one of the country’s biggest networks of Roman Catholic schools. And half of the 52,000 students who would be eligible for the state grants in the first year would come from here.
It is also here that Mr. Ridge’s market-oriented solution for schools collides with the reform plans of a premier educator.
Hired last year, Superintendent Hornbeck has assembled what many believe is a radical school-improvement plan for Philadelphia. It includes full-day kindergarten for at-risk schools, an extra three-hours of instruction each day, smaller class sizes in the early grades, and the hiring of a nurse for every school.
But Mr. Ridge has called this plan “tinkering” and so far has rebuffed Mr. Hornbeck’s request to pay half of the $120 million cost of the plan. In the interview, the Governor praised Mr. Hornbeck’s efforts but argued that “choice and competition will have a far greater impact.”
What Spells Relief?
Charles B. Zogby, the Governor’s policy director, said that Mr. Ridge may be “pushing the envelope” with this kind of thinking but that Pennsylvanians are ready for such an approach.
“They’re not as interested in solving the problems of a system or in building new buildings as they are in getting their kids educated,” Mr. Zogby said.
Indeed, Mr. Donatucci, the state lawmaker, said that the blue-collar neighborhoods surrounding South Philadelphia High School mainly want relief from high property taxes and increasing tuitions at parochial schools.
“‘For sale’ signs are going up all over my district,” he said. “People are telling me that if they don’t get help, they’re going to move over the bridge to Jersey.”
But across town, the parents picketing at the Convention Center argued that the tuition-grant money parceled out in such small amounts would offer little relief.
While Mr. Hornbeck has made no public comment about the Governor’s grant plan, the superintendent’s supporters say that by denying that money to the city, Mr. Ridge is turning his back on Philadelphia’s last best hope to rejuvenate its schools.
“The Pennsylvania constitution gives him the responsibility to provide a ‘thorough and efficient’ education for every child in this state,” said Gail Tomlinson, one of the protest organizers and the executive director of the Citizens Committee on Public Education in Philadelphia, a local advocacy group. “It does not require him to provide parents with choice.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 1995 edition of Education Week as Pa.'s Ridge Takes Point Position for G.O.P. Governors