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HARRISBURG — A coalition with wealthy backers is pushing Pennsylvania lawmakers to use public dollars to create tuition vouchers so K-12 students can attend private schools, an idea Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administration has reiterated that he’s on board with, to the dismay of many of his fellow Democrats.
Private school voucher proposals have proliferated in legislatures across the country in recent years, and as Pennsylvania’s June 30 budget deadline approaches, supporters in the commonwealth hope to wrap the measure into the budget deal.
The issue has extra weight this budget cycle thanks to a February Commonwealth Court ruling that found Pennsylvania’s school funding system is inequitable and must be overhauled.
Many Republicans, and some Democrats who represent districts with lots of low-achieving public schools, have argued that vouchers should be part of that fix, and have championed them as a way to give parents more control over their kids’ education.
Many Democrats oppose vouchers completely, arguing that the approach weakens public schools by diverting funding and undermines the goal of creating a system that can serve all students. Shapiro and several other key Democratic state House leaders are notable exceptions.
Two of the organizations that successfully sued over the way Pennsylvania’s education system is funded have publicly maintained that any overhaul that includes vouchers would not pass constitutional muster.
“Funding private schools will not move the Commonwealth a single dollar closer to its constitutional mandate, because that mandate is clear: The General Assembly must support and maintain a contemporary, effective public education system that is available to every child in the Commonwealth, regardless of their school district’s local wealth,” the Education Law Center and Public Interest Law Center wrote in a joint memo addressed to “interested parties.”
In Pennsylvania, one prominent voucher scheme is known as the lifeline scholarship program.
First introduced in the last legislative session and re-introduced last week, the bill would require districts with schools categorized as “low-achieving” to annually notify families that their kids qualify for lifeline scholarships.
These scholarships would be financed with state money and awarded on a first-come-first-served basis to eligible students who apply. If a family opted to use one, the Pennsylvania Treasury would put money into an account for the student to use on nonpublic school tuition, associated fees, or special education fees.
The bill does not specify how much money would be available annually, but it does state that a student could get between $2,500 and $15,000 per year, depending on grade and whether the student needs special education services.
This is the program that a well-heeled coalition is now trying to promote to lawmakers.
The newly formed group, One Way Out, launched a series of TV and digital ads this month that urge viewers to contact lawmakers and register their support for lifeline scholarships, arguing that many Pennsylvania students are “trapped” in underperforming schools. It plans to keep running ads through the June 30 budget deadline.
One Way Out is backed by several groups that have championed public school alternatives like state-funded vouchers.
They include organizations that offer financial assistance so children can attend Catholic and Jewish day schools, an organization that coordinates with businesses to provide Jewish day school scholarships in exchange for state tax breaks, and a PAC that gets most of its funding from billionaire Jeff Yass, one of the commonwealth’s most prominent donors and a staunch advocate for the state to fund alternatives to public schools.
California-based talent manager Troy Carter, who grew up in West Philadelphia, spearheaded the formation of the coalition and oversaw its advertising efforts.
Carter told Spotlight PA that he heard about lifeline scholarships several months ago, and found them appealing because if the commonwealth appropriates extra money for schools, he believes the scholarships wouldn’t necessarily take money away from public education.
Opponents of the scholarships disagree with that understanding and note that state budgeting priorities could change year over year.
Carter, who said he has been meeting with state lawmakers on both sides of the issue, described himself as agnostic about public versus private education, but said he bases his support for lifeline scholarships on the experiences he and family members have had in low-achieving Philadelphia schools.
“Educated kids don’t want to go to jail,” he said. “Educated kids don’t want to commit crimes. And if we want to get at root causes, we have to educate kids.”
Lifeline scholarships won’t get into this year’s budget without Democratic support, and so far Shapiro and state House Democrats — who have a one-seat majority in their chamber — have both proposed budgets that did not include them.
However, Shapiro supported lifeline scholarships on the campaign trail, and his nominee for education secretary, Khalid Mumin, said this week that the governor’s position hasn’t shifted.
In a Q&A Mumin submitted to the state Senate Education Committee ahead of his confirmation hearing, he wrote that Shapiro “favors adding choices for parents and education opportunity for students and funding lifeline scholarships as long as those choices do not impact school district funding.”
In the document, which Spotlight PA obtained a copy of, Mumin added, “As Secretary of Education, I will be focused on ensuring that parent choice, student voice, and community needs are reflected in Pennsylvania’s education system.”
A broad group of unions that represent teachers, state workers. and building trades quickly pushed back, sending a letter to Shapiro’s administration Wednesday expressing “deep concern and complete opposition to the idea of implementing any school voucher program in Pennsylvania.”
“Tuition vouchers in any form redirect taxpayer resources that could be used to support public schools and the students they serve to private and religious schools,” they wrote. “Pennsylvania has a moral and constitutional responsibility to fund its existing system of public education.”
A bill that would create a lifeline scholarship program in Pennsylvania is awaiting consideration in the Senate Education Committee.
Asked Wednesday about plans for the bill, state Sen. Dave Argall (R., Schuylkill), who chairs the committee, said the measure is “still under discussion.”
That same day, the chamber tweeted that its highest-ranking member, state Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland), “is ready to make Lifeline Scholarships — and increasing current tax credit programs — her top priority.”
The commonwealth’s influential teachers’ unions have been particularly active in pushing back against lifeline scholarships.
In a statement, Pennsylvania State Education Association President Rich Askey said the union “disagree[s] with Gov. Shapiro and Secretary Mumin on lifeline scholarships, and we’ve made that clear to them.”
Askey added, “We are incredibly disappointed that Secretary Mumin has suggested that Gov. Shapiro could be the first governor in Pennsylvania’s history to sign a school voucher bill.”
Pennsylvania’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, a union that represents a range of school workers, sent an email to all of its members in the commonwealth Wednesday urging them to publicly oppose lifeline scholarships.
“Several Pennsylvania Senators are fast-tracking a bill, backed by Governor Shapiro, to drastically expand vouchers in Pennsylvania in an attempt to further dismantle the public education system,” said the email signed by AFT Pennsylvania President Arthur Steinberg.
“Write Governor Shapiro and your state senator now and tell them that taxpayer money should only be spent on fully funding public schools and should never be used as a corporate handout to private school operators or to religious institutions,” the message encouraged.
In a statement to Spotlight PA, Steinburg added, “So-called lifeline scholarships are vouchers packaged up to make elected officials feel better about taking money away from public schools.”
A spokesperson for Shapiro did not return a request for comment.
The office of state House Speaker Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia) also declined to comment on whether she would support a budget that includes lifeline scholarships. Instead, it shared a statement from state House Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery) that said the chamber is “focused on adequately funding our public schools by putting forth a budget that makes meaningful investments in public education.”
State Rep. Pete Schweyer (D., Lehigh), who chairs his chamber’s Education Committee, told Spotlight PA that he “fundamentally” opposes lifeline scholarships and believes it would be a mistake to route state money into public school alternatives when the courts have said the public school system itself needs funding.
“This bill will not be considered in my committee,” he said.
But he acknowledged that he might not be able to stop lifeline scholarships from making it into a larger budget deal.
“I’ve been around long enough to know that all kinds of weird stuff happens during budget season,” he said.
Spotlight PA’s Stephen Caruso contributed reporting.
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