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MITCHELL: A Good Education Isn’t a Perk. It’s a Lifeline.

What would you do to help your children succeed? Would you advocate for them, pushing to change the broken systems that keep them away from the tools they need to succeed?

It’s a question many Pennsylvania parents face daily as they reckon with their children’s futures and the broken public school system that they’re stuck in. Now, parents are speaking out.

Their message is clear: Educational opportunity isn’t just for the wealthy, and school quality shouldn’t be dictated by an antiquated Zip code system. Every child deserves an excellent education, and parents should be able to select the environment best suited to their children’s needs.

It sounds like common sense, but unfortunately, for thousands of Pennsylvania families trapped in failing public schools, this opportunity is out of reach. And for Philadelphia mothers like Tamika Nwalipenja, educational opportunity isn’t just a convenient perk; it’s a lifeline for her children.

A mother of five, Tamika understands the limitations of the Philadelphia public school system well. Her older children attended William D. Kelley School. The Pennsylvania Department of Education rated William Kelley as one of the commonwealth’s lowest-achieving schools, with fewer than five percent of students proficient in math, fewer than a quarter reading at grade level, and more than half chronically absent.

And though Tamika loved many teachers at William Kelley, she knew her children needed better than this assigned school.

“[William Kelley] just didn’t compete with the other schools,” said Tamika. “I knew that my son was highly intelligent—both he and my daughter—and I wanted them … to have other options.”

Year after year, Tamika sought help through Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia (CSFP), which provides under-resourced families with scholarships to attend private or parochial schools. Thankfully, after years of effort by Tamika, CSFP awarded scholarships—funded by the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs—to her two youngest children to Gesu School, a highly rated private Catholic institution serving economically disadvantaged youth. Because there is more demand for these scholarships than funding available, due to arbitrary caps imposed by the state, they must be given out via lottery.

“Every day, I’m grateful we were picked for that lottery, and we were able to receive that support financially for our children,” said Tamika.

Tamika’s kids got out. But when it comes to accessing school choice programs based on lotteries, success isn’t guaranteed. Many children are never selected.

Pennsylvania parents and their kids deserve better—and there are two clear solutions. The first is to dramatically increase the EITC and OSTC scholarship programs from which Tamika’s children benefited, so that there are no more waiting lists. This includes fully funding the Economically Disadvantage Schools fund – which gives supplementary scholarships to help families like Tamika’s. The second is Lifeline Scholarships. By offering an Education Opportunity Account to any student assigned to a district school in the bottom 15 percent of performance metrics, Lifeline Scholarships empower parents to choose which school best serves all their children’s needs. Lifeline Scholarships ensure that those who can’t afford tuition don’t leave children in schools that don’t fit their needs.

It’s time these Lifeline Scholarships receive the legislative support they deserve.

Gov. Josh Shapiro promised to expand education opportunities for Pennsylvania families and advocated for Lifeline Scholarships. Now, he’s caving to pressure from his own party, backtracking on his repeated promises and threatening a line-item veto of his own bipartisan agreement.

But the fight is far from over, it’s merely moving to the next phase. A final budget agreement still requires enabling legislation from the State Senate, where President Pro Tempore Kim Ward has vowed to make Lifeline Scholarships – and the expansion of current tax credit programs – her top priority.

“It’s very important for all of our children to be able to be educated properly in a safe environment—a place where they feel loved,” Tamika said. “And if the Lifeline Scholarships can support my family and other families as well, then please … find the resources that are available so that our families can benefit.”

Tamika is right. These scholarships are the lifeline that underserved Pennsylvania kids desperately need. Our elected officials must take a good look and realize that these kids are more than just a line item—and their futures shouldn’t be jeopardized by the stroke of Shapiro’s pen.

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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.”

OPINION: Let’s Work Together to Rescue Students Stuck in Failing Schools

Recognizing that a ZIP code should never determine the quality of a child’s education, we are excited that Pennsylvania’s Democrat Gov. Josh Shapiro once again affirmed his support for initiatives like our Lifeline Scholarships that would give struggling students and their families much-needed access to a better education.

In an interview with Fox News regarding education and school choice, the governor said, “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.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Our Lifeline Scholarship program is simple. Parents with school-age children (kindergarten through 12th grade) who attend a low-achieving public school will be eligible to receive a scholarship to offset costs associated with choosing an alternative academic setting and curriculum that meets their child’s needs.

Despite what opponents claim, Lifeline Scholarships will not take money away from our public schools. No public school money will be used to fund Lifeline Scholarships. The program will be funded entirely by a separate source of state revenue.

A high-quality education is key to achieving the American Dream. We cannot expect our kids to thrive as adults, as parents, as workers, or as community leaders if we do not give them a solid foundation to build upon.

Lifeline Scholarships will be one of the most impactful educational reforms in Pennsylvania history, with the ability to change the trajectory of the lives of thousands of kids and their families.

During his campaign last year, our governor said he “favors adding choices for parents and educational opportunity for students and funding lifeline scholarships like those approved in other states and introduced in Pennsylvania.”

Our kids cannot afford to wait any longer. We look forward to working with Gov. Shapiro to make this life-changing reform happen!

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