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Commonwealth Foundation Launches Billboards Promoting Lifeline Scholarships

The Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank, launched a six-figure advertising campaign this week, using billboards to promote Lifeline Scholarships.

The nonprofit is promoting Lifeline Scholarships, which help children in failing public schools access better schools. Although Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) ran on a promise to support those scholarships, he used his line-item veto to remove them from last year’s budget. Commonwealth hopes to build public awareness and support so that the Lifeline Scholarships program will be included in the state budget this year.

The Democratic majority in the state House and state teachers’ union opposed the program. A spokesperson for Shapiro did not respond to requests for comment.

The first three digital billboards will run for the next 12 weeks at major locations along I-76, I-676, and the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia. Multiple other billboards have slated launches in the Pittsburgh, Wilkes Barre/Scranton, and Harrisburg areas.

Commonwealth will be following the billboards with radio spots and ads in other media, as well, said Christian Stellakis, a spokesman.

The ads urge parents to visit to explore the potential of the program’s proposed Educational Opportunity Accounts (EOAs) for their kids.

“Every child deserves access to an excellent education,” said Erik Telford, the senior vice president of public affairs at the Commonwealth Foundation. “Lifeline Scholarships empower families to do just that by allowing education funds to follow the student. Parents get to choose the schools that best meet their kids’ needs.”

Lifeline Scholarships, proposed by the state legislature last year, would establish EOAs for students trapped in schools ranked in the bottom 15 percent of the state’s educational institutions. In these failing schools, fewer than 10 percent of students test proficient in math, and just 25 percent reach proficiency in English.

“Too many kids are currently trapped in failing schools. Lifeline Scholarships would provide parents $10,000 to send their child to a better and safer school,” Telford said. “We want to make families aware of the transformational impact of Lifeline Scholarships so that when they become available, parents can take advantage of the new opportunity to secure their children’s future.”

Funded separately from existing education formulas, Lifeline Scholarships would not impact public school budgets. Though Shapiro vetoed the legislation in August 2023, the latest polling reveals a strong majority of Pennsylvania voters (61 percent) believe the governor should enact Lifeline Scholarships.

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BLOOM: Shapiro Lost His Way. But He Can Still Rescue Himself and the Kids Depending on Him.

Sealing a deal with an old-fashioned handshake may seem like a throwback to a bygone era. After all, does anybody still rely on a handshake promise in an age of lawyers, contracts, and endless documentation?

Well—yes. Under Pennsylvania’s capitol dome, it happens every year. A complex negotiation between the governor and legislative leaders over how to spend tens of billions of taxpayer dollars all boils down to a handshake.

Arguably, that’s how most lawmaking happens. I saw it myself during my eight years as a Pennsylvania state representative. Trust is the coin of the realm, and any colleague foolish enough to break one of those handshake deals—whether a lawmaker or governor—rapidly loses whatever influence they held.

On June 23, Gov. Josh Shapiro appeared on Fox News to defend his support of the proposed Lifeline Scholarship Program. This program, which Shapiro initially supported as a gubernatorial candidate, would provide the funding families desperately need to escape Pennsylvania’s poorest-performing schools. It would allow parents to choose an educational setting that better meets their children’s academic and social needs. Shapiro doubled down on his defense of Lifeline Scholarships, stating that “every child of God” deserves a “quality education.”

With Shapiro using his bully pulpit as governor (alongside the outspoken support from top Senate leaders), it appeared that Lifeline Scholarships were about to become a reality for Pennsylvania’s neediest families as part of the commonwealth’s new budget package. According to the Senate leaders involved in the private negotiations with the governor, Shapiro shook hands on a comprehensive deal, which specifically included carefully crafted legislative tweaks to the Lifeline Scholarship Program, including means testing, a new separate budget line to prevent any impact on existing school funding levels, and a new name—all requested by the governor.

But then the unthinkable happened. At the budget deadline, facing withering political pressure from public sector unions who oppose expanding educational opportunities for even Pennsylvania’s most disadvantaged kids, Shapiro suddenly announced that he would line-item veto the Lifeline Scholarship Program, ironically instructing lawmakers to pass the bill he had advocated and shaped—so that he could veto it!

Shapiro shocked his legislative counterparts by unilaterally blowing up the comprehensive handshake deal. However, Senate leaders still have plenty of leverage and many options to respond accordingly and reset the clock on Lifeline and the other key budget priorities they had negotiated in good faith with Shapiro. Given Shapiro’s breach of their trust, they will treat him warily as the budget impasse he caused extends into July and beyond.

Let’s not forget the real tragedy: Shapiro has put politics above the children trapped in Pennsylvania’s worst failing schools. Lifeline Scholarships are the exit strategy for the tens of thousands of students stuck in the 380 schools that Pennsylvania classifies as “low performing.” In these schools, academic proficiency and attendance are lacking, but violence is abundant. And Shapiro is turning his back on these most vulnerable children.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Shapiro can still save his credibilty and escape this budget trap he created. More importantly, he can still rescue the kids who fell into this trap with him through no fault of their own. They deserve a Lifeline now more than ever.

The Pennsylvania budget isn’t finished. The current budget impasse could drag on for months. And Shapiro has nothing to veto until the Senate reconvenes, currently scheduled for September. Furthermore, as part of the budget process, the Senate must pass legally required “code bills” that detail how to spend the appropriated budget dollars. Senate leaders have made it clear that Lifeline Scholarships will reemerge in renewed negotiations around those code bills as a part of a package deal that the governor cannot line-item veto—with or without his handshake.

Shapiro is accountable to his constituents—those who trusted and voted for him based on his campaign promises. Moreover, he is accountable to the students trapped in Pennsylvania’s lowest-performing schools whom he promised to help. By fulfilling his promise on Lifeline Scholarships, Shapiro can rescue himself from his negotiating blunders, demonstrate genuine leadership and courage, and regain the trust of his colleagues.


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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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