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Debate over publicly funded private school vouchers could push Pa. budget past June 30 deadline

by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA and Kate Huangpu of Spotlight PA |

Desks inside a classroom.
TIM TAI / Philadelphia Inquirer

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HARRISBURG — The debate over funding private school vouchers for students in underperforming Pennsylvania public schools has taken over state budget talks just days before the June 30 deadline.

While the Republicans who control the state Senate and Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, have backed a voucher proposal known as the lifeline scholarship program, the measure has received a cool reception among state House Democrats, who have a one-seat majority in the lower chamber.

From the rank and file to leadership, caucus members’ reactions to a potential compromise that includes state funding for private school tuition ranged this week from guarded skepticism to open hostility.

“I’ll never vote for a voucher,” state Rep. Maureen Madden (D., Monroe) told Spotlight PA.

The proposal was thrown on the table last week when Shapiro’s administration sent a letter to the Republican-controlled state Senate Education Committee backing a voucher program.

Shapiro supported vouchers during his election campaign last fall and has reiterated that support during budget talks, appearing on Fox News last week to say he is on board with such programs as long as they don't take “a dollar out of public schools.”

State Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) said Tuesday that a deal is “pretty close” and that she thinks the new voucher program will be in the final package.

But state House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery) reiterated his opposition to vouchers in an interview with Spotlight PA, calling lifeline scholarships a “distraction” as Pennsylvania grapples with a February court ruling that found the state unlawfully underfunds poorer districts.

“I believe that we have a constitutional obligation to provide for public schools,” Bradford told Spotlight PA Tuesday. “And it has already been found by our Commonwealth Court that we're not meeting that obligation. We need to get about doing that.”

This is the second legislative session in which lifeline scholarships have been pitched by lawmakers.

As of Thursday morning, the state Senate had yet to introduce a budget bill or advance any language regarding lifeline scholarships. A separate piece of voucher legislation pending in the upper chamber could be rolled into the budget package, and offers some insight into the program’s potential structure, though sources close to negotiations cautioned the exact language isn’t finalized.

As written, the bill would give between $2,500 and $15,000 per year in vouchers to eligible students, depending on grade and whether the student needed special education services.

That money could be used only for tuition at a nonpublic school, or on associated or special education fees. Students would be eligible if they attend public schools categorized as “low-achieving” — that is, in the bottom 15% in reading and math scores among schools of their kind.

The scholarships would be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis to eligible students who applied.

The bill does not specify how much money would be available annually, or precisely where it would come from. However, unlike a previous iteration of the lifeline bill that took the funding out of a school district’s share of state money, this year’s version would draw the money from the state budget.

Vouchers, as with school choice measures generally, split both parties.

When state House lawmakers considered the previous iteration of the lifeline scholarship bill last fall, the measure got affirmative votes from some Black Democrats seeking an immediate fix for struggling schools, but turned off some suburban, labor-aligned Republicans.

This session, the proposal’s odds in the state House, where Democrats control the agenda, appear slim.

State Rep. Donna Bullock (D., Philadelphia), chair of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, acknowledged that there is no single position on the topic among the group’s 37 members.

Last year, state Rep. Amen Brown (D., Philadelphia) voted with state House Republicans in favor of lifeline scholarships, though he soon after asked to have his vote changed to no. And earlier this week, state Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Philadelphia) came out in support of the scholarships, co-sponsoring the state Senate proposal.

“I think that this is an issue that members of the Black Caucus are divided on for different reasons. But we also recognize the decisions that families are making in our district,” Bullock told Spotlight PA. “And we are trying to take that into consideration and balancing that with our responsibility to fund our public schools.”

The dispute over vouchers is part of the wider debate in Harrisburg over how to use the state’s roughly $12 billion surplus. The eventual budget deal must thread the needle between state Senate Republicans, who want to spend little and make few far-reaching changes to avoid future fiscal strains, and state House Democrats, who have sought to put billions of new dollars toward education and social programs.

Between them is Shapiro. His initial $44.4 billion budget proposal included a nearly $1 billion increase for K-12 funding, school construction, mental health programs, and other education items. But it didn’t include other Democratic priorities such as earmarking funding specifically for the commonwealth’s poorest school districts.

Earlier this month, state House Democrats passed a modified version of Shapiro’s proposal that added about $1.4 billion in spending, including $900 million more for education and $200 million for a state housing repair program. The increases were partially in line with requests made by the chamber’s Progressive Caucus in a letter sent to their leadership team this month, which was viewed by Spotlight PA.

After state House Democrats passed their budget, state Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana) said it was “an impossible number.”

The state Senate announced it would be in session Thursday afternoon, signaling that leadership may be close to a budget deal and could vote and send it over to the lower chamber for consideration soon. State House Democrats told Spotlight PA the exact content of the package, including the voucher program, will matter.

State Rep. Melissa Shusterman (D., Chester) said she opposes vouchers, but added that “a big Easter basket” of Democratic priorities, such as a minimum wage hike, more state money for underfunded school districts, and tax credits for child care and low-income working families could pique her interest.

“I’d like to see what we traded,” Shusterman told Spotlight PA.

State Rep. Manny Guzman (D., Berks) also said that the contents matter. As currently written, the voucher bill does not have any language ensuring Black and brown students have access to scholarships, or ensuring that they would be admitted to the school of their choice. Such provisions, Guzman said, would make it easier to vote for a voucher bill.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Shapiro said the governor believes an on-time budget is possible. “We continue having productive conversations and making progress toward delivering a commonsense budget that addresses the most pressing issues facing our Commonwealth,” the spokesperson said.

Still, leaders in both the state House and state Senate have indicated that they are willing to blow past the June 30 deadline to ensure a good deal.

In the short term, a late budget does not have many repercussions; funding for state services such as public schools and state prisons will continue. But if the impasse lasts for months — as it has in the past — state-funded programs would be forced to make decisions on how to spend their dwindling funds.

“The test of any budget isn't when it's done. Last year, I believe, we were a week, 10 days after the June 30 date,” Bradford said. “And it's probably one of the best budgets we've passed in the last decade.”

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