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Ridge's school-voucher plan: Two tough questions remain

June 04, 1999

Frustrated four years ago in his attempt to pass a school-voucher program, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge is offering the legislature two versions of the program in the current session. Neither, however, deals with our misgivings about the program.

The more ambitious of the two programs is called the Educational Opportunity Grant Program and would operate as a pilot in six counties and nine municipalities, serving 35,000 students at an estimated cost of $64 million the first year. More students - and more cash - would be added in later years, state officials say.

The other program is the Academic Recovery Act, and would target students in eight school districts in which more than half of the fifth-, eighth- and eleventh-grade students finished in the bottom 25 percent of statewide assessment tests. Eugene Hickock, the state's education secretary, didn't provide an annual cost for the plan, but said cash would come from a share of the state aid now given to those schools.

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At this point, these are proposals that aren't given much chance of passing the legislature, perhaps because while lawmakers realize that although this is a red-meat issue for conservatives, the bills really don't address two important problems.

The first is the limitations of each school's physical plant. A school recognized as "good" which parents want their children to attend will still be able to accommodate only so many children. Will admittance be first-come, first-served, by lottery or some other means? Certainly the state couldn't afford to expand every "good" school with space going to waste in the bad institutions.

And what about transportation? If students in the southern part of town wants to attend a school in the municipality's north end, who will get them there? Certainly the schools couldn't afford customized bus routes for every out-of-district transfer, and giving students vouchers for public transportation would only add to the program's costs.

The real answer is not to encourage the best students to run away from "bad" schools, but to improve those schools so that students (and their parents) want them to stay.

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