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.