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Poll: Most PA Parents Would Send Kids to Private School

If money weren’t a problem, a majority of Pennsylvania parents would pull their kids out of public schools. That was the finding of a new poll from the Commonwealth Foundation.

The survey of 800 Keystone State voters found that 55 percent said, financial considerations aside, they would rather their kids attend a private school. Fewer than one in five (18 percent) picked public school as their first option.

More parents preferred sending their kids to a non-religious private school (33 percent) than a religious private school (22 percent). Charter schools and home schools were the choice of seven percent of respondents.

Foundation Executive Vice President Jennifer Stefano said the poll’s most disturbing finding was the poor grade most Pennsylvanians gave the public school system. “[W]hen asked to grade the K through 12 system, the respondents gave schools twice as many F’s as they did A’s.”

Those who tended to favor public education made over six figures. Stefano said that showed “if you can buy in the marketplace options” — in other words, afford to move to communities with high-performing public schools — you have a more positive view of government-run education.

Only three percent of those making less than $40,000 gave public schools an A, while 11 percent gave public schools an F. The results were similar for respondents earning between $40,000 and $125,000 annually.

While schools historically taught ‘reading, writing, and arithmetic,’ 41 percent of Pennsylvanians did not believe that is happening in classrooms today. Almost 50 percent believe students aren’t learning life skills. Student safety concerns were at 38 percent, while 37 percent of parents worried about learning loss from COVID shutdowns.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro signed a bill last week expanding the state’s tax credit scholarship programs by $150 million. The first-term Democrat previously reached a deal with the Republican-controlled Senate on vouchers. That plan was ditched in July after the Democratic-controlled House refused to pass a budget that included $100 million for school choice.

Shapiro, however, has consistently said he wants to give children “more opportunity to learn” if they are in difficult situations.

Pennsylvanians feel the same way, and according to the Commonwealth Foundation poll, they want the governor to honor the deal he made with Senate Republicans on student scholarships.

The Commonwealth Foundation said 61 percent agreed the scholarships should be funded. Sixty-four percent of people 18 to 29 and 67 percent of those 30 to 44 believed Shapiro needed to follow through on the voucher deal. A whopping 70 percent of people living in the big city favored the agreement. Not only that, but 63 percent of Democrats and independents gave support to scholarships.

“[It’s] very interesting, given that the Democratic Party elites were debating whether to have a resolution to condemn school vouchers as policy,” said Nathan Benefield, senior vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation. “They seem to be appeasing the teachers unions but are out of touch with their own voters who think that Gov. Shapiro should get that done and support lifetime scholarships for low-income kids.”

Shapiro avoided a rebuke from the Pennsylvania Democratic Party’s rules committee last week after an anti-voucher resolution was tabled. Party Chair Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) said the national Democratic Party asked the resolution to be tabled under the guise of party unity. He wouldn’t say who from the Democratic National Committee made the request.

An original version of the anti-voucher resolution would have included language criticizing Shapiro for talking to Fox News about vouchers and that “school voucher policies are widely supported by the [party’s] political opponents.”

School choice advocates still hope vouchers will become a reality in Pennsylvania. American Federation for Children CEO Tommy Schutz told DVJournal that “Empowering families should not be a partisan issue; in fact, a super-majority of every political party and demographic – including 66 percent of Democrats in a recent poll – support it. Democrat Party leaders who have chosen to represent the unions instead of their constituents on this issue do so at their own political peril.”

Bipartisan Coalition Pens Letter Supporting Lifeline Scholarships

The Lifeline Scholarship program is getting more support. Some 65 individuals and organizations sent a letter to Gov. Josh Shapiro and the state legislature Thursday backing the program. It is designed to help students in failing public schools learn elsewhere.

The coalition includes two former U.S. education secretaries, rapper Meek Mill, state and national organizations, and schools nationwide.

The Lifeline Scholarship program was introduced by Reps. Clint Owlett (R-Tioga) and Martina White (R-Philadelphia) in the House and Sen. Judy Ward (R-Blair) in the Senate. It would help students in the lowest performing 14 percent of public schools. Shapiro has indicated he supports the program, promising, “I won’t take a dollar out of our public schools.”

The letter said, in part, “33 of the bottom 15 percent of high schools have zero students performing math at their grade level; six high schools have not a single student reading at their grade level. Minority, low-income students are overrepresented in these underperforming schools.

“Without Lifeline Scholarships, we are setting our children up for failure before they even have an opportunity to succeed.

“The truth is this program would save kids—and save public schools money. Lifeline Scholarships would result in smaller class sizes, which would mean more focused learning and more funding per student. The program provides $5,000 and $10,000 scholarships for students who wish to leave their assigned public school—a fraction of the $21,300 per student school districts receive,” the letter said.

A recent Commonwealth Court ruling said Pennsylvania’s funding system must ensure that “every student receives a meaningful opportunity to succeed.” The letter argued that lifeline Scholarships are the way to deliver on that promise.

“Lifeline Scholarships will give our most vulnerable students hope and the opportunity for a brighter future. It’s time we deliver an excellent education to all of Pennsylvania’s children,” the letter stated.

However, the program has many critics, and it’s unclear whether it will ultimately become law.

“Right now is the time to invest more into our schools, not less. Private school voucher programs defund our public schools,” said Arthur G. Steinberg, president of AFT Pennsylvania. “There is literally no mathematically sound way to send money to unaccountable private and religious institutions without harming school districts’ budgets. It is a farce.”

And Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), said, “Tuition vouchers, in whatever form they may take, siphon precious taxpayer dollars from the public schools that serve 1.7 million Pennsylvania students and give them to private and religious schools. In fact, there is absolutely no way to create a tuition voucher program that doesn’t take money from public schools.”

“Our public school students don’t have a moment to waste on this nonsense,” said Askey. “Now, let’s get to work on passing a budget that supports them and our public schools.”

In fact, the Lifeline Scholarship program increases per-pupil funding at underperforming schools where students are eligible for the scholarships. Because their scholarships are funded by a state account separate from the K-12 budget, the schools they leave behind retain their funding but would have fewer students to serve.

“Republicans who oppose adding more funding for public schools keep warning us about a future state spending crunch. Yet when it comes to their priorities—such as lifeline scholarships—as well as the huge $340 million subsidy for private schools in the ETIC and OSTC program that already exist—they forget this warning,” said Marc Stier, executive director of the Pennsylvania Policy Center. Stier also pointed out evidence from other states that have enacted proposals for vouchers like lifeline scholarships shows they have failed in multiple ways.

But the latest round of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests found performance in math and reading at public schools plunged at a record pace, while students attending parochial schools experienced no meaningful decline in either subject on the latest NAEP.

Supporters believe the state can make changes to its education system now.

“Our children trapped in failing district schools need more than increased funding; their parents need choices—good choices. No child ought to be forced to attend a school that is failing them simply because of their zip code. These children need a way out of a system that has failed them,” GOP activist Guy Ciarrocchi wrote for National Review.

“This is an overwhelming expression of support from a broad coalition on behalf of the 250,000 Pennsylvania students trapped in failing public schools,” said Erik Telford, senior vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank, which organized the coalition letter. “Lifeline Scholarships offer them hope and access to quality education. This program must be included in the pending budget agreement. With the new school year fast approaching, these children’s futures are hanging in the balance.”

Shapiro Embraces School Vouchers, Enrages Teachers Unions

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.”


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PA Independent Regulatory Review Commission Votes for New Charter School Rules

In a 3-2 ruling along party lines, the Pennsylvania Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) voted Monday in favor of new charter school rules championed by Gov. Tom Wolf.

Wolf, a Democrat, welcomed the commission’s decision.

“These regulations are a vital step in clarifying charter schools’ responsibilities to the taxpayers who fund them,” Wolf said. “We were forced to take this path when the legislature refused to act on our comprehensive reform package. Charter schools received nearly $3 billion in publicly paid tuition this school year. Parents and taxpayers have a right to know how those resources are being used.”

However, others believe it will make it harder for parents who want to send their kids to charter schools.

Previously, the House and Senate education committees rejected the rules and sent the IRCC letters saying they opposed approval.

“Wolf once again acted unilaterally to circumvent the legislature,” said Nate Benefield, senior vice president of the

Nathan (Nate) Benefield is the Senior Vice President at the Commonwealth Foundation.

Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank. “This ‘Lone Wolf’ strategy does a disservice to Pennsylvania voters, parents, and students.”

More than 40,000 children are on a waiting list for charter schools in the Delaware Valley region, the foundation said in a press release.

In 2020–2021, more than 170,000 students attended charter schools—an increase of almost 23,000.

Pennsylvania’s charter schools are public schools open to all students. And while charter schools serve more low-income and minority students than traditional district schools, they receive, on average, 25 percent less funding, the foundation said.

“Our governor hasn’t set foot in a charter school in seven years but insists that he knows what’s best,” said Benefield. “Instead of trying to stifle choice for families by unilaterally designing a bureaucratic labyrinth, Wolf should work with the legislature to empower parents and provide more education opportunities for every child in the commonwealth.”

Meanwhile, a study from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools showed Pennsylvania charter school enrollment rose 15.5 percent from 2020 to 2021 as public school enrollment dropped by 3.2 percent. Statewide, the number of charter school students grew to 169,252 pupils.

The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools said the IRRC decision would hurt students.

“This regulation could result in numerous harms,” including lowered charter school tuitions, negatively impact minority operated and run charter schools, and increase the already “ballooning” waiting list,” the group said in a press release.

“Overall, the regulation could reduce educational choice options for Pennsylvania students, including the most vulnerable of minority and economically disadvantaged students. Public charter schools kept teaching our scholars during the pandemic, and recent enrollment numbers show that more and more parents are choosing charter schools.”

Jennifer Arevalo, CEO of Souderton Charter School Collaborative

The coalition slammed Wolf for reducing the money going to charter schools by $373 million in his budget request, noting that charter schools already get 25 percent less state funding than other public schools receive.

Jennifer Arevalo, CEO of the Souderton Charter School Collaborative said, “The new regulation would harm charter schools and charter students in the following two ways. The regulation will place additional requirements on new charter school applicants that extend beyond Charter School Law. While promoting a standard application, it does not limit districts from asking for more information from the applicants.

“The regulation does not resolve the redirection issue where some districts simply do not provide tuition for students who attend charter schools. This places charter schools in a precarious position of not being able to pay their bills. The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) should make districts comply with school law.”

The Wolf administration listed the regulatory changes in its statement about the approval: “Provide clear application requirements for entities seeking to open a charter school, regional charter school, and cyber charter school; ensure that all Pennsylvania students are able to access charter schools; clarify the ethics requirements for charter and cyber charter school trustees; require school districts and charter schools to follow the same fiscal management and auditing standards; streamline the process for charter schools to request tuition payments from school districts and the state; and provide a consistent, common-sense method for charter schools to meet the employee health care requirements in state law.”

Those rules must still go to the state legislature for passage or revision and then to Wolf for his signature or veto.

There are 179 charter schools and cyber charter schools operating in Pennsylvania this school year. All 67 counties in Pennsylvania have students enrolled in some form of charter school.

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