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OPINION: PASS Scholarships: A Crucial Investment in Pennsylvania’s Future

At the heart of education is a promise: the promise of opportunity, growth, and a brighter future.

Yet, for countless students in Pennsylvania’s consistently lowest-performing schools, this promise remains elusive, trapped behind the barriers of geographic limitations, economic restrictions, or limited access to quality instruction.

The reality in many parts of the state, like Philadelphia, is that students and parents desperately want better educational opportunities for their kids. Parents with students in the bottom 15% performing public schools in Pennsylvania often grapple with challenges that hinder the delivery of quality education. These challenges can include overcrowded classrooms, an increased presence of violence, and a need for more educators.

The House Republican Policy Committee recently convened to hear about school choice from eager parents and educators speaking on behalf of students looking for real change to a broken and outdated education system.

The change they advocated for was the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) scholarship program, a bipartisan policy initiative that would serve as a transformative solution granting families the opportunity to select the educational curriculum most suitable for their child’s needs. Access to these scholarship dollars and more educational choices further empowers parents as they take an active role in their child’s education, fostering a sense of ownership and partnership between families and schools.

Introducing competition and encouraging innovation, PASS scholarships will be a catalyst for positive change. Students will have the freedom to leave underperforming schools instead of being trapped in a one-size-fits-all, government-run system. Schools, both private and public, will be competing to attract students by improving curriculum, engaging parents, creating a 21st century learning environment and prioritizing the well-being of their students.

Special interests who oppose the program have argued falsely that PASS scholarships divert resources away from struggling schools, exacerbating their challenges. The truth is that funding for a PASS scholarship program would come from a separate state account while also preserving full funding for traditional K-12 public education.

At one of the Republican Policy Committee hearings, a mother from Philadelphia made a point to mention she is a Democrat and this issue goes beyond party lines. She testified that, if implemented, this program would force schools to “up their game…and hold their schools accountable.” By embracing competition in education, we create a system where schools are driven to excel, breaking the cycle of underperforming institutions, and where the students are the ultimate winners, gaining access to more diverse and innovative learning opportunities.

Pennsylvania has a unique opportunity to lead the way in innovation in education by embracing PASS scholarships as a powerful and life-changing solution for those who need it most.

As the Pennsylvania House of Representatives returns to session and legislators fill the capitol, they have an opportunity to pass a bipartisan school choice initiative that will have a positive generational impact. Democrat Gov. Josh Shapiro promised to support the program during his campaign and now is the time to deliver on that promise for the next generation of Pennsylvania.

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Some Hope Legislature, Governor May Yet Approve School Choice Program

Gov. Josh Shapiro’s flip-flop on a school voucher program to help children in the bottom 15 percent of Pennsylvania’s public schools stalled the state budget, disappointing many parents looking forward to sending their kids to better schools.

Fifteen U.S. states, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, have active school voucher programs. School choice programs, including charter schools or tax credit scholarships, are available in 18 other states.

Pennsylvania might have become the 16th state with a school voucher program this summer. However, in early July, Shapiro announced he would line-item veto the $100 million Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) school voucher program from the budget. The governor cited the impasse between the House and Senate for his decision. But critics say he caved to teachers union demands, perhaps with an eye on his political future.

School voucher advocates say Shapiro should have honored his campaign promise and approved the PASS program.

“I think he has the votes to support it in the House…if he would have actually pushed for it,” said Nate Benefield, senior vice president at the Commonwealth Foundation. “He kind of wanted to make it easy, but in reality, made it difficult. I think it was a miscalculation on his part.”

Benefield said Shapiro needs to be “a strong leader” on the school voucher issue like he was during the 2022 campaign.

“He’s been consistent on supporting educational choice,” Benefield acknowledged. “But there is a difference…as governor saying “‘Hey, this is something I support’…and getting it done.”

Shapiro, for his part, said he still wants school vouchers to become a reality for Pennsylvania parents and students.

“I consider it to be unfinished business, something the House and Senate need to keep working on,” the Democrat told an audience in Penn Hills last week. “I think it’s important that we fully fund our schools and we give children who are struggling in difficult situations more opportunity to learn.”

The veto did not sit well with some House Republicans.

“Why is the governor breaking his promise to the children and people of Pennsylvania? Because he buckled to a small group of radical Democrat representatives who prioritized special interests and their own jobs over what’s right for our kids.” wrote Rep. Martina White (R-Philadelphia) in DVJournal.

“We know one year of learning loss can translate into thousands of dollars in lost lifetime earnings,” White said about the massive disruptions in education during the pandemic. “We know two out of three Pennsylvanians support school choice for students in the worst performing schools. We know we need education options for parents and students now.”

Observers say school vouchers is an issue that isn’t going away.

“What side blinks first?” said Benefield. “Senate Republicans have basically said this is part of the deal. If the Democrats want funding for billion dollars in programs that don’t have authorization language, they need to go along with this. House Democrats have yet to blink on that.”

“Senate Republicans took Gov. Shapiro at his word when he promised to support Lifeline Scholarships (the first name for PASS) in the budget,” said Commonwealth Partners president and CEO Matt Brouillette. “Kids trapped in failing schools hope they can count on him this time to deliver on his promise to rescue them.”

Others portray the school voucher issue as more of a “when,” not if scenario.

“Pennsylvania is one of several states where school choice has passed or expanded with bipartisan support and even divided government,” said Tommy Schultz, CEO American Federation for Children, who sees school vouchers as an issue of parents taking control of their child’s education. “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. Democratic party leaders who have chosen to represent the unions instead of their constituents on this issue do so at their own political peril.”

“The fact is that families want more agency over their K-12 experience, and the demand for options is only growing stronger,” said Aaron Garth Smith, director of education reform for the Reason Foundation. Smith commented that Shapiro knows parents support school choice. “His tone has certainly been more productive than many other Democrats across the country, so hopefully, they can strike a deal that gives parents what they want.

“Education choice isn’t about public schools vs. private schools—it’s letting parents decide what’s best for their kids. Public schools work great for many kids, but others need something different,” said Smith.

Smith sees the current push towards school choice as something that completely changes how education is viewed in the U.S.

“The pandemic was the tipping point that led to the school choice moment. What we’re witnessing is fundamentally changing public education for the better at a breathtaking pace. Decades from now, I think we’ll look back and say that school choice was the most important issue coming out of the pandemic. It’s changing how we think about education,” said Smith.

The legislature will return in mid-September.

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WARD: PA Senate Republicans Have Your Back

There was no one more surprised by Gov. Shapiro’s last-minute about-face on the state budget than me. Senate Republicans are not ticked off or sulking, we are shaking our heads, trying to determine the best way to move forward with a governor who has lost our trust.

Gov. Shapiro campaigned on school scholarships for low-income children trapped in the bottom 15 percent of failing schools. He proclaimed “every child of God” deserved a chance at a good education. It was a priority for him so long as it did not take money away from public schools. Senate Republicans met that challenge and crafted a budget that provided historic increases to basic education, including new funding for K-12 scholarships through the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (P.A.S.S.).

Negotiation is inherently built into the lawmaking process and is part of the foundation that government sits upon. Throughout any negotiation, there are moments where a handshake, a head nod, or even a memo indicates an agreement. A person’s word means something until it doesn’t, by failing to uphold their end.

Leading up to the Senate approval of the General Appropriations Budget (HB 611) there were many of these moments. The Senate passed HB 611 in good faith, but in a classic “bait and switch,” Gov. Shapiro waited until the bill was passed and then announced he would line-item veto P.A.S.S. while also keeping all his negotiated wins pending House approval of the bill. Subsequently, the House did pass the bill. The Senate has no ability to renegotiate HB 611 since it passed both legislative chambers.

I understand the importance of getting the General Appropriations Budget to the governor before the school year begins, as well as the funding to organizations. Pennsylvanians are counting on us to finish this process and we will by calling the Senate back before the end of August to sign HB 611. It will be sent to the Governor allowing Treasurer Stacy Garrity to disperse the monies where it is needed in a timely manner.

It’s important to note, HB 611 is not a complete budget. Signing this bill only provides funding to approximately 75 percent of programs which includes schools and counties. The remaining 25 percent still need some form of legislation to authorize their expenditures. The Governor’s legal team noted this in the governor’s justification to veto P.A.S.S. funding, but there are many more programs affected. Senate Republicans are currently working through what these legislative approvals will look like.

The final 25 percent will require negotiation, and we will work diligently to do our part. Hopefully, our House counterparts will report back before their scheduled return of September 26th. If they return early, the House is evenly divided, along party lines, 101-101. Hopefully they will put politics aside and return sooner to finalize the remaining parts of this budget.

The quickest and best solution is for Gov. Shapiro to simply keep his word, not only to us, but to the kids trapped in failing schools. The opportunity still exists, but it is becoming clearer that Gov. Shapiro isn’t interested. Words mean something, but actions mean more. The time to act is now for kids stuck in failing school districts.


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