As the state budget season nears its June 30 deadline, Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) said he is ready to support a school voucher program for Pennsylvania students.
“I believe every child of God deserves a shot here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and one of the best ways we can guarantee their success is making sure every child has a quality education,” Shapiro told Fox News’ Dana Perino when asked about vouchers. “I’ve been very clear that I’m open to that concept that you described a moment ago. But I’ve also made crystal clear that I won’t take a dollar out of our public schools in order to achieve that.”
The backlash was immediate.
PSEA president Bill Askey said in a statement Lifeline Scholarships are “yet another ideological push to weaken public schools and privatize the public education system. It would take money from school districts with the most student needs and give it to private and religious schools without any real accountability for how the money is spent. This is another irresponsible tuition voucher proposal that will end up hurting Pennsylvania’s students, not helping them.”
The Lifeline Scholarship program would allow parents in Pennsylvania’s worst-performing school districts to take part of the money that would have gone to their child’s public education and use it for alternative education, such as private or parochial school.
SB795 would offer $5,000 for elementary tuition and expenses and $10,000 for high school. Average per-pupil spending is more than $19,000, and the remainder of the money would stay with the district. As a result, supporters say, the district would have more resources for fewer students while giving concerned parents more options.
For Ana Cintron’s son, Nelson Garcia, a rising junior with a 4.0 GPA at Liguori Academy in Kensington, scholarships have been a lifesaver.
“The public school in my neighborhood was no option for me,” she told DVJournal. “Public school is not an option for him. It’s a rough neighborhood.”
Public schools have larger classes, and the teachers aren’t able to “follow through” with students, making it “harder for students to learn.”
State scholarship funding would help her son and many others.
“Times are just really uncertain. Everything’s going up. Nothing goes down,” said Cintron. “I’m a full-time working parent, but it’s still hard with everything, utilities and food. At times you have to choose where to put your money first.”
“I just feel all kids and their families should have the opportunity to receive these funds,” said Cintron. “It is amazing. There are a lot of smart kids, but due to financial circumstances, a lot of times, that gets in the way of some of them achieving higher goals. And the parent should not have to worry about that.”
“My son has been blessed,” said Cintron. Of course, there’s a lot of hard work that he has done. But I don’t think kids should be held back because of (lack of funds).”
Guy Ciarrocchi, a fellow with the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank, has been working on the issue and hopes funding for the scholarships will be part of the state budget since Shapiro expressed his support and has “gotten national press” on the topic.
“Lifeline in one form or another passed the House, vouchers passed the Senate,” he said. “We’ve had governors who were supportive before, but something has happened to block it. (But) I’m optimistic.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward has said Lifeline Scholarships are her number one issue. Majority Leader Sen. Joe Pittman “remains committed to education empowerment through parental involvement in the education of their children,” said a spokesperson. An exact amount for the scholarship funds has not been hammered out.
“I think they have a chance to do something historic, and they know it,” said Ciarrocchi. He said the scholarship program would help kids in failing schools, in the bottom 15 percent of the state. And it would be another win for Shapiro, who scored on the quick reopening of I-95.
“If you’re Josh Shapiro and you’ve been in office for six, seven months, the big takeaway for most of the state is: ‘He seems to get things done.’ That’s worth $1 billion [in public relations], right?”
On Monday, the state Senate confirmed Shapiro’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Khalid Mumin. Mumin, former Lower Merion superintendent, told the committee he supports Lifeline Scholarships.
Many Democrats and teachers’ unions oppose the scholarships. In a joint letter to lawmakers, a group of unions representing teachers and other government workers announced their opposition to the voucher program.
“This tuition voucher exercise, timed conveniently in the final days of FY 2023-24 budget deliberations, is keeping policymakers from addressing actual problems like our unconstitutional public school funding system and the school staff shortage crisis. It is irresponsible to vote for any tuition voucher program or include a tuition voucher program in any state budget agreement.”