Pa. Governor Puts His Reform Plan on Back Burner

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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge failed last month in an 11th-hour bid to pass his controversial education package, dimming the chances for its success in the upcoming legislative session.

As lawmakers prepared for 1995's final votes, the governor pulled his education bill from the House floor, ending his yearlong campaign for state funding to help poor families pay their children's private school tuition.

Conceding he lacked support to win, Gov. Ridge pledged that the reforms--including the tuition-grant proposal--would be back.

But, the governor said at a news conference, the plan probably will not top his agenda as it did in 1995. "Education reform will be out there, but it will be in the mix with other things."

Statehouse observers said Mr. Ridge's education plan is dead unless the elections give him a few more allies in the 203-seat House. Last June, the House rejected the governor's package--including a statewide plan for the grants--by seven votes.

"He's had two bites at the apple, but I don't think he'll get a third," said G. Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Millersville University of Pennsylvania. "Legislative leaders are ready to move on."

A Personal Defeat

Republicans are in the majority in both chambers of the state legislature, but support for the governor's plan has not split neatly along party lines.

Gov. Ridge's withdrawal of his legislation ended his first year in office with a very personal defeat. He had traveled the state to drum up support for the plan, and lawmakers reported that he personally was courting them and twisting arms. (See Education Week, June 7, 1995.)

The plan included proposals to create charter schools, repeal state mandates, and rewrite the state's academic standards. But it was the tuition grants that drew massive opposition from a coalition of more than 40 state groups spearheaded by the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union.

After the June defeat in the House, the Republican governor reshaped the grant program into a pilot plan that included tuition grants only in some urban areas.

The four Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate education committees countered with their own reform package. That package did not include vouchers, but some of its other provisions--including a charter school proposal--were similar to the governor's plan.

Momentum for 1996

Debate last fall also featured charges by both sides that the opposition was playing politics with children and schools.

PSEA officials maintained that state education officials released this year's student-performance data without analysis, statewide averages, or comparisons as a means of hiding improvement in test scores to bolster the governor's argument for massive reform.

The governor's aides, meanwhile, criticized school officials in some areas who sent children home with "alerts" attacking the Ridge plan.

Both Gov. Ridge and his critics claimed the yearlong battle had won them momentum for 1996.

The governor's aides contend that he was a single vote short of victory. They argue that Mr. Ridge made education such a high-profile issue that legislative candidates in the fall will have to stake out their views on the issues.

"He's changed the terms of the debate," said Sean Duffy, a spokesman for Eugene Hickock, the governor's education secretary. "As a candidate, you now have to define yourself by the governor's views. It used to be that you defined yourself by the views of the teachers' union."

But Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the teachers' union, said the governor's plan fell short of victory by a dozen votes, not one.

"Every time it comes up and gets a setback, we think the chances diminish that there will be fresh support," he said. "The assertion that there is momentum for this is false."

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