The fight for school vouchers in Pa. is back — and both sides have new strategies

2 months ago

Supporters of funding public schools stand together during a news conference outside Philadelphia City Hall in April. They gathered to speak out against school vouchers. Read more

HARRISBURG — The debate over school vouchers is heating up again.

And this time, both sides are coming to the fight, a lot more organized — and a lot more well-funded than last year.

Last year, public school advocates and teachers’ unions were caught off guard. They knew that Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro was supportive of a voucher program, but didn’t know that he’d work to implement a program that went against his party’s biggest allies during his first year in office.

School vouchers held up the state budget last year, but the anti-voucher crowd ultimately got its way. After initially cutting a deal with Senate Republicans for a $100 million voucher program to send some students in low-performing districts to private schools, he vetoed the program when it couldn’t pass the Democrat-controlled House.

School vouchers are poised to again be a sticking point that could stall the state budget past the June 30 deadline, with Democratic leaders in the House and Republican leaders in the Senate all promising they won’t back down on the issue.

This year, school-choice advocates are as well-funded as ever, putting millions behind their push to get the state to give students in failing schools a chance to attend private schools — through billboard campaigns, tele-town hall meetings with thousands of Philadelphians, and mailers. Meanwhile, public school proponents have organized more than a dozen unions and advocacy groups for an education campaign that includes knocking on 60,000 doors in Philly and Pittsburgh and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to spread their view that any voucher program would hurt public schools.

The debate will play out amid an even bigger fight over school funding. The General Assembly and Shapiro are working on an agreement to make Pennsylvania’s public education system more equitable after a Commonwealth Court judge ruled it unconstitutional last year. Experts estimate that effort will cost at least $1 billion this year, for a total of $9 billion over seven years. Teachers’ unions and public school advocates say any money that would have otherwise been spent on public schools being sent to private ones is diverting much-needed dollars from Pennsylvania’s underfunded schools.

“If you want to fully fund public education and make sure that every child in every public school has the services they need to thrive, you have to do it and you have to mean it,” said Hillary Linardopoulos, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

School choice proponents, on the other hand, believe that students need options, especially if they live in struggling districts.

“We are in crisis. The house is burned down, and we’re gonna argue with what type of water to put the fire out with,” said State Sen. Anthony H. Williams (D., Philadelphia), one of the only pro-school voucher Democrats in the state Senate, during a committee hearing last month.

Shapiro, who won election with a promise to work as a bipartisan governor and has made vouchers a top issue on which he can agree with Republicans, says school vouchers are still a priority for him. But he has said he’d like to attach such a program to new investments in public schools.

The program that Shapiro and Senate Republicans drafted last year would have been targeted to poor families in low-performing districts. The 15% lowest-performing schools in reading and math and whose families are 250% above the federal poverty line would be eligible for the state to cover their tuition to attend a private school. Republicans still want some version of this program to be part of a larger budget deal, and advanced a version of it from committee last month.

“After a bruising and protracted budget stalemate during his first year in office, Shapiro now has an opportunity to break the partisan dysfunction in Harrisburg and deliver on his campaign promise to fund Lifeline Scholarships for kids trapped in failing and unsafe schools,” said Erik Telford, a spokesperson for the pro-school choice group Commonwealth Foundation.

The Commonwealth Foundation has ties to Pennsylvania’s richest man, Jeffrey Yass, who has spent millions of dollars advocating for private school vouchers across the country. But his home state has proven to be an interesting challenge: Shapiro supports vouchers, while Democratic leaders in the state House continue to oppose them.

Pennsylvania already sets aside hundreds of millions of dollars each year for tax credits to businesses that give to scholarships at private schools around the state. But school choice proponents want another option to get more students from poor districts into private, parochial or religious schools, while public school advocates say these schools can discriminate against students.

“There’s no accountability at those private schools,” said Daisy Cruz, a district leader for SEIU 32BJ in the Philadelphia region, which represents 6,000 School District of Philadelphia employees. “It needs to be poured into our public schools so our kids can go to school, no matter what their race, gender, or whatever walks of life they’re from; they should have a free education and not have to be picked to go to a certain school.”

So far, 58 Democratic state representatives, 15 Senate Democrats, and several Philadelphia City Council members have pledged to oppose any school vouchers. Councilmember Kendra Brooks plans to introduce a resolution this week declaring that City Council disapproves of any state voucher program.

Shapiro said Friday that Senate Republicans and House Democrats will need to negotiate a deal on school vouchers if it’s going to get done as part of the budget that is to take effect July 1. That’s a similar stance to one he took last year when the voucher plan fell apart — though he had helped craft it, he said legislative leaders were responsible for striking a deal. (Republican leaders, in turn, blamed him for backtracking.)

“I support scholarships for low-income individuals in struggling school districts, provided we fully fund public education. My view on that has not changed,” Shapiro added. “This is now a matter that needs to be negotiated between the House Democratic leadership and the Senate Republican leadership, who lead each of the houses in the legislature.”

Staff writers Anna Orso and Katie Bernard contributed to this article.…Read more by Gillian McGoldrick


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