HARRISBURG - After more than a year of being demonized for his administration's deep cuts in state spending for education, Gov. Tom Corbett may soon be able to claim some victories in his school-reform agenda.
As part of this week's handshake deal on a $27.7 billion spending blueprint, leaders of the Republican majorities in the Legislature promised the GOP governor they would push for passage of four bills he wants on his desk before lawmakers' scheduled summer break begins a week from now.
"We have some details to work through, but I think it's a very reachable goal," said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware.
The proposals would expand a tax-credit program that helps children from low-income families transfer to private schools or better public ones, establish a process for assisting financially distressed school districts, place the regulation of charter schools under a statewide board and broaden teacher evaluations to include students' performance on standardized tests.
All the bills need majority support to become law. None is a slam dunk, especially when lawmakers have only a week to pass a state budget and deal with other bills competing for their attention.
But the proposed expansion of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit clearly has a leg up. The leadership agreement tentatively calls for a $75 million increase - one of the largest in a discretionary program from the budget now in place - that would double spending in the program to $150 million in the year that starts July 1. Money for public schools, meanwhile, would remain level.
Corbett campaigned for governor in 2010 on a promise to open an array of taxpayer-financed alternatives to public schools, but so far has not delivered. He was roundly criticized last year for failing to do enough to win support for a Senate-approved school-voucher plan that collapsed in the House.
Expanding the popular EITC program would represent tangible progress toward enhanced school choice, good news for Republican candidates and Corbett, who is not up for re-election until 2014.
Advocates for public schools oppose the idea, calling it a giveaway of scarce state dollars that should go to public education.
The EITC program rewards businesses that contribute money, property or services to nonprofit groups that offer scholarships to students from low- and middle-income families who transfer to private schools or to public schools outside their home district. Qualifying contributions also may be made to nonprofits that provide grants for innovative programs at public schools.
The 11-year-old program generated more than a half-billion dollars in business contributions - an average of $57 million a year - during its first decade, according to the Department of Community and Economic Development, which administers the program.
"We know that the EITC is a successful mechanism to fund education. It's got a proven track record," said Kevin Harley, the governor's spokesman.
Much of the new money for the EITC program would be set aside for a proposed new element - an "educational improvement scholarship credit" aimed at helping students in the state's academically worst schools. It would mark the first time schools' performance - a key element of vouchers - would determine eligibility for the scholarships.
State Rep. Paul Clymer, chairman of the House Education Committee, has scheduled a two-hour informational meeting Monday on the proposed scholarship credit, which is contained in a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver.
"The bottom line is we want to provide the best education we can," said Clymer, R-Bucks. "I'm anxious myself to hear what people have to say."
Sen. Andrew Dinniman, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, said any EITC expansion is likely to win bipartisan support so long as the state government can afford it.
"No one quite knows what to do with all these [public] schools that aren't working, so this is one approach," said Dinniman, D-Chester.