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.”