Note: Reprinted with Permission from Capitolwire.
By Peter L. DeCoursey
HARRISBURG (July 2) – As we wrote Sunday morning, the biggest winner in the 2012 budget deal was Gov. Tom Corbett. He succeeded in major changes that will affect teacher evaluation, educational opportunity, the cost and effectiveness of the corrections system and, he hopes, job creation.
It was a set of budget deals that would rival in magnitude and transformative legislation any of the mega-Junes of former Gov. Ed Rendell.
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But with this many bills flying to passage past 1 a.m. Sunday morning, more than an hour after the governor signed the general appropriations bill and revenue estimate, there are a lot of other winners and losers to review.
WINNERS: House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, Sen. Tony Williams, the Three Voucheteers, The REACH Alliance, the Catholic Conference, both Students Firsts, PA and national and Reps. Mike Vereb and Jim Christiana.
Students First, the national organization led by former Washington D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, had a great budget. They influenced the teacher evaluation bill and generally helped work with the governor and House on the other education reform pieces. They had a very good budget and established themselves as an influence.
But if they had a terrific budget, and they did, what do you say about Students First PA and their three Voucheteer funders? Students First PA has mostly been a one-trick pony, pushing their vouchers for poor kids in bad schools bill since Joel Greenberg and his partners at Susquehanna Investment Group and allies, across the nation spent $7 million in the 2010 elections.
Most of it was on a voucher-backing ad campaign for Sen. Tony Williams’ third-place campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. But if the short-term result underwhelmed, it got the attention of lawmakers and led to this bill getting passed. In other words, for guys who made themselves hundreds of millions of dollars investing, they spent $7 million to give thousands of kids a path to safe, functional schools. That’s probably the best investment ever on a third place finisher in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
And while Greenberg for much of the last year viewed House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, as the bottleneck for Williams’ and Sen. Jeff Piccola’s voucher bill, the REACH Alliance, with its deep set of EITC and christian school allies, with Turzai, ended up putting together a plan. While Greenberg wanted to stick to his old Williams & Piccola voucher plan, REACH, Turzai and a group of lawmakers saw EITC as the key and got others to see it that way too. That plan used business tax credit-funded scholarships to rescue the poor kids in bad schools to which the Piccola-Williams bill gave vouchers.
By doing it through EITC, Turzai and Williams mostly avoided the state’s education establishment from being violently against the idea, with them instead being too busy to do more than grimace at it occasionally.
But first it took Williams, REACH and Turzai and a cast of dozens six months to persuade the Philadelphia Archdiocese and Greenberg to accept scholarship funding from tax credits, and to start the program at $50 million. Williams said a month ago he thought $50 million was the minimum acceptable, and after the diocese and Greenberg balked and held out first for vouchers and then for $25 million more, it took a lot of work to calm them down and not lose the whole deal. But Turzai, Williams, Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, and others both advocated for the program and got the diocese and Greenberg to realize $50 million was a good start. Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver, also played the role of public advocate for this bill, helped sell it in caucus, and move his caucus towards doing this voucher bill. Pete Gleason and the Bridge Foundation and Otto Banks and the REACH team also worked hard and productively on this.
Vereb and Christiana also sold this as a way to stop Catholic schools around the state from closing, which added votes.
Former Gov. Tom Ridge even helped a little, with a few late strategic phone calls, both by encouraging leaders and making everyone realize that chances to make a change this big are rare and don’t come often, and telling some insiders this was a bill he would have loved to pass during his tenure.
Basically, all these folks combined to create a publicly-funded, tax credit voucher program for poor kids trapped in bad schools and, at the same time, increased the funding for the state’s existing tax credit scholarship program for middle-class kids.