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Counterpoint: Vouchers Are Not the ‘Civil Rights Issue of Our Time’

For an alternate point of view, see: “Point: Parents Must End the Teachers Unions’ Stranglehold on Education”

In 1958, three years after the Brown v. Board of Education order to integrate American schools, the Texas legislature debated a plan that would offer vouchers to parents who opposed the idea that their children would learn in diverse racial settings. Echoing similar efforts throughout the U.S. South, the Texas bill left no ambiguity about the voucher’s purpose. “Such aid,” the legislation read, “should be given only upon affidavit that the child was being withdrawn from the public schools due to the parents’ dislike of integration.”

That voucher bill failed, and 67 years later—70 years this month after the Brown decision itself—Texas still has yet to pass a voucher system. But I think about this piece of legislation every time I hear the claim, from Donald Trump on down, that vouchers and related school choice bills are “the civil rights issue of our time.”

No. They are not.

In the early days of modern voucher systems that use taxpayer funds for private K-12 tuition—1990 through roughly 2010—vouchers were largely limited to students in a handful of urban settings like Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C. That fact, combined with firm albeit slowly lifting caps on income for participants, meant that vouchers went disproportionately to children of color.

A handful of studies through 2002 showed those students realized some academic gains as a result. Over the past decade, however, as vouchers expanded into statewide systems in places like Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and again in Washington, D.C., those results became negative—catastrophically so. How bad? In Louisiana, for example, students who used a voucher to transfer from public to private school suffered academic declines more than three times what Hurricane Katrina did to test scores for students who survived that calamity. And like Katrina’s victims, Louisiana’s voucher users at that time were disproportionately Black.

The main culprit was the fact the best-run private schools didn’t take vouchers or the students who had them at the time. Louisiana’s system pushed students of color largely into D and F-rated private schools, and the results showed. That’s why I’ve called vouchers the education equivalent of predatory lending: all promise, no results.

Today, however, as voucher systems grow in number and in scope, those warning signs for children of color are changing into something else. With income caps lifting, and now 10 states and counting with “universal” vouchers for all children, the vast majority of new users are White and coming from wealthier communities. We’ve seen this pattern in new data from Ohio and North Carolina, as well as in Arizona.

There’s strong evidence that most of these students were already in private school even before getting the voucher. And new data shows many private schools simply raise tuition further once taxpayers begin picking up some of the tab through the emerging voucher system.

Even when they do use vouchers, students of color are disproportionately likely to leave their private schools—either because they are pushed out or for some other reason. These students are also the most likely to be struggling academically. What this means is that vouchers may provide a temporary coupon to change schools but are hardly a long-term solution to problems of racial inequality that persist across schools and communities.

Beyond the data, it’s important to note that many of the same people pushing the claim that vouchers are a civil rights issue, are also those who want to ban teaching about racial inequality in public schools. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed the nation’s largest voucher bill last year, has also repeatedly insisted that slavery had some benefits for African Americans. In Arkansas, home to some of the most important moments in actual civil rights history, the same legislation that created vouchers in that state also put strict new limits on the teaching of race in public schools—and removed African American History from the state’s list of approved AP courses.

All of this simply means that when we look beyond claims and slogans about vouchers providing a new civil rights agenda, the results suggest entirely the opposite.

Saying something doesn’t make that something so.

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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GIORDANO: Compromise on Norristown Homeless Encampment is Example for State Budget Impasse

I’m glad that PECO will clear a homeless encampment on its property in Norristown after a battle between Norristown Council President Tom Lepera and a Villanova professor advocating for the homeless. Lepera threatened to bus encampment residents to Villanova.

All parties involved called the current relocation plan “respectful.” It involves posting signs in August that will alert people on the property that they must move within 45 days. I feel this is a fair and generous compromise.

I also believe a fair, generous compromise was reached in Harrisburg between Gov. Josh Shapiro and Pennsylvania Senate Republicans that massively increased funding for public schools and included a voucher program of $100 million to be used by parents of kids in the lowest-performing 15 percent of public schools.

State Rep. Greg Scott, who represents Norristown in the legislature, released a statement that said, “I’m happy that our school districts will see a boost from the budget’s $617 million increase for Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts.” He was very happy that Norristown schools would get an 18.5  percent increase in state funding over last year.

So, Norristown parents could send their kids to a district with huge added resources or send their kids to a private school with the new voucher money since Norristown is clearly among the lowest-performing 15 percent of schools in the state. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics and the Pennsylvania Department of Education, only 6-9 percent of students in the Norristown Schools are proficient in reading. That should shock any parent and make them consider an alternative like the voucher program.

However, that statistic apparently doesn’t shock Democratic House Majority Leader Matt Bradford. According to his profile, he represents a district near Norristown and was an interim administrator for the Borough of Norristown from 2004 to 2005. He is very familiar with the problems of the Norristown Area School District, yet he was the person who blocked the compromise between Gov. Shapiro and Senate Republicans on education funding.

Bradford is clearly the darling of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (teachers’ union) and seems to take pride in being the face of opposition to school choice. He is not only blocking choice in Norristown but in suburban districts like Bristol Township, Morrisville, Chester-Upland, Southeast Delco, Upper Darby, William Penn, and Pottstown.

On my radio show, Senate President Kim Ward nailed him as the key person blocking the compromise on school funding that would have greatly helped kids in school districts across the state. Bradford has even babbled a defense that the vouchers would only benefit a small number of kids. My counter is to say, then let’s increase the voucher funding.

This battle is still ongoing, and the state has not adopted a budget, which was due June 30. Ward told me Republicans won’t sign off on a budget unless the vouchers program is included. Bradford also knows if he allows a vote with the vouchers program in the budget, multiple Democrats in key districts will vote for it.

These school choice programs are often billed as just a plot by Republicans to attack progressive-controlled big cities like Philadelphia. Take a look at all the underperforming suburban districts that I listed. There are also dozens of rural districts across Pennsylvania that would benefit greatly.

Let’s tell Matt Bradford it’s time for the respect and compromise we saw in the homeless settlement in Norristown. Let’s think of vouchers as a dignified relocation program for kids.

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Backed By Teachers’ Unions, Fetterman, Shapiro Send Their Kids to Private Schools

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, and Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Democratic candidate for governor, enjoy the endorsement and support of the powerful state teachers’ union.

But when it comes to their own children, they rely on private schools.

The Washington Free Beacon revealed Fetterman, a passionate opponent of school choice for low-income families, sends his kids to an expensive prep school.

“In 2018,  Fetterman told an organization founded by Bernie Sanders supporters he opposed vouchers for families in Philadelphia on the grounds that they ‘[take] money away from public schools and give it to private and charter schools. Roughly one-third of Philadelphia school kids go to charter schools because of the city’s dismal public school system,” the Free Beacon reported.

Charter schools are publicly funded alternatives to the various school district systems. Fetterman was called out for repeatedly conflating them with private school charters by David P. Hardy, co-founder and retired CEO of Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia charter school.

“Mr. Fetterman needs a primer in how charter schools work,” Hardy told Fox News on Wednesday. And he called out Fetterman’s hypocrisy on the issue.

“This guy was the mayor of his town, and he sent his kids out of that town to a private school, and left all the other kids there. That’s not a good look for him,” Hardy said.

And it is not just Fetterman. Hardy noted Pennsylvania’s liberal Gov. Tom Wolf (D) comes from a long line of private-school families. “Our current governor hasn’t had a family member in a public school since before Pearl Harbor.”

While Fetterman has publicly blasted the voucher system, Shapiro has said he supports more funding for public schools. As attorney general, he filed an amicus brief in a school funding case that remains pending.

“Every child in our commonwealth should have access to a high-quality education and safe learning environment regardless of their zip code. Many Pennsylvania schools are not able to provide the level of education required by the Constitution—not for lack of trying, but for lack of funding. I commend the tireless efforts of dedicated teachers and administrators who have struggled for years to do the most for our children with the least amount of resources,” Shapiro said.

Six school districts had filed a suit saying that the state does not fairly fund all districts and argued that 84 percent of students attend public schools that are not adequately funded. The trial phase of this case is over but a judge has not yet ruled.

Meanwhile, Shapiro’s four children attend his alma mater, a Jewish day school in the Delaware Valley where the tuition ranges from $30,500 to $37,600 a year. The private school Fetterman’s children attend also charges a hefty $34,250 a year.

Not many working families, who the Democrats claim to champion, can afford those hefty tuitions.

“Unfortunately, there are many politicians who practice the hypocrisy of supporting school choice for their own kids but opposing it for others,” Hardy said. “While folks like John Fetterman and Josh Shapiro send their children to the best private schools money can afford, they’re backed by school union executives who oppose giving poor parents access to those same educational institutions. Wealthy politicians already have educational opportunity, but they’re blocking school choice for the poor.

“Allowing taxpayer funding to follow the child to the school that best meets their needs is the only way to guarantee that all students have fair, equal access to a great education,” said Hardy.

And the state teachers union opposed Republican efforts to provide vouchers to families in districts in the bottom 15 percent of the state, where public schools are failing to teach needy children.

Neither the Fetterman nor Shapiro campaigns responded to requests for comment.

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