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The stealth voucher plan

June 10, 2003

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell says he wants to improve the chances of the state's poorest children succeeding in school by targeting millions in early-childhood cash to the school districts where they live.

But Rep. Elinor Z. Taylor, R-Chester, says parents, not the school system, should decide how that money is spent. The plan sounds nice, but upon closer examinations, its flaws become apparent.

Rendell is asking for the creation of an Early Childhood Investment Fund as part of his proposal to change the state's tax system to reduce local school districts' dependence on property taxes. The hitch is that doing that would require a corresponding increase in income taxes, something the timid crew in Harrisburg will only do with the greatest reluctance.

The early childhood fund would require $239 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and increase to more than $675 million over the next three years. It would fund full-day preschool programs for 20 percent of the state's school districts, where a minimum of 35 percent of the students come from poor families.

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On the other hand, Taylor's bill would not be limited to the poorest children, but would include any student whose family income is three times the national poverty level. Parents would get grants of $6 per hour to enroll their children in full- or part-time programs in private, public or parochial schools.

Taylor's program is not a plan for creating an organized program to help poor children get ready for school, but a thinly disguised attempt to enact the voucher program that Gov. Tom Ridge couldn't pass. Not only would it be subject to constitutional challenges, but it wouldn't produce results because it would depend on parents with no expertise in evaluating educational programs to determine which would best help their children.

If those who favor vouchers want to give that idea another try with a new governor, please do so. But don't pretend that this alternative would do much to help get the state's most impoverished students ready to learn.

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