School voucher debate in Pa. Discussions on the state budget are gaining momentum again

HARRISBURG — The debate over school vouchers is heating up again.

This time, both sides will enter the fight, much better organized and better financed than last year.

Last year, public school advocates and teachers unions were caught off guard. They knew Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro supported the voucher program, but they didn’t know that in his first year in office he would work to implement a program that would target his party’s biggest allies.

Last year, school vouchers held up the state budget, but the anti-voucher crowd finally rose to the occasion. After initially striking a deal with Senate Republicans on a $100 million voucher program to send some students from low-performing districts to private schools, he vetoed the program when it could not pass House controlled by Democrats.

School vouchers could once again become a sticking point that could clog the state’s budget after the June 30 deadline, with Democratic leaders in the House and Republican leaders in the Senate vowing not to budge on the issue.

This year, school choice advocates are as well-funded as ever, with millions supporting their efforts to ensure the state gives struggling school students a chance to attend private schools – through billboard campaigns, televised town hall meetings with thousands of Philadelphians, and mailings . Meanwhile, public school supporters organized more than a dozen unions and support groups for an education campaign that included knocking on 60,000 doors in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to spread the idea that any voucher program would harm public schools.

The debate will take place in the atmosphere of an even greater fight over school financing. The General Assembly and Shapiro are working on an agreement to make Pennsylvania’s public education system more equitable after a Commonwealth Court judge ruled it unconstitutional last year. Experts estimate the effort will cost at least $1 billion this year, for a total of $9 billion over seven years. Teachers unions and public school advocates say any money that would otherwise be spent on public schools and sent to private schools diverts much-needed money from underfunded Pennsylvania schools.

“If you want to fully fund public education and ensure that every child in every public school has the services they need to thrive, you must do it and act seriously,” said Hillary Linardopoulos, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

On the other hand, school choice advocates believe students need options, especially if they live in struggling neighborhoods.

“We are in crisis. The house is on fire and we’re going to argue about what kind of water to put out the fire,” said state Sen. Anthony H. Williams (R-Philadelphia), one of the nation’s few pro-school Democrats in the state Senate, during a committee hearing last month.

Vouchers are a key issue for Shapiro

Shapiro, who won election on a promise to serve as a bipartisan governor and identified vouchers as the most important issue he can agree with Republicans on, says school vouchers remain a priority for him. However, he announced that he would like to link such a program with new investments in public schools.

The program developed last year by Shapiro and Senate Republicans targeted poor families in low-performing districts. The lowest-performing 15 percent of schools in reading and math whose families are 250 percent above the federal poverty line would be eligible to have the state cover their tuition to attend a private school. Republicans still want some version of this program to be part of a larger budget deal and introduced a version of it in committee last month.

“After a severe and prolonged budget impasse in his first year in office, Shapiro now has an opportunity to break through the partisan dysfunction in Harrisburg and fulfill his campaign promise to fund Lifeline scholarships for children trapped in failing and unsafe schools,” said Erik Telford, a spokesman for the pro-school choice group Commonwealth Foundation .

The Commonwealth Foundation has ties to Pennsylvania’s richest man, Jeffrey Yass, who has spent millions of dollars promoting private school vouchers across the country. But his home state has proven to be an interesting challenge: Shapiro supports vouchers while Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives continue to oppose them.

Pennsylvania already provides hundreds of millions of dollars a year in tax breaks to companies that provide scholarships to private schools across the state. But school choice advocates want another option to attract more students from poor neighborhoods to private, parochial or religious schools. Public school advocates say the schools may discriminate against students.

“There is no accountability in these private schools,” said Daisy Cruz, district leader of SEIU 32BJ in the Philadelphia region, which represents 6,000 Philadelphia school district employees. “Resources must be poured into our public schools so that our children can go to school, no matter what race, gender or walk of life they come from; they should have free education and not have to be selected for a particular school.”

So far, there are 58 Democratic state representatives, 15 Senate Democrats and several Philadelphia City Council members declared his opposition to all school vouchers. Councilmember Kendra Brooks plans to introduce a resolution this week stating that the City Council disagrees with any state voucher program.

Shapiro said Friday that Senate Republicans and House Democrats will have to negotiate an agreement on school vouchers if it is to be implemented under the budget, which is scheduled to go into effect on July 1. It’s a similar stance to the one he took last year when the voucher plan failed – although he helped develop it, he said legislative leaders were responsible for striking the deal. (Republican leaders, in turn, blamed him for the withdrawal.)

“I support scholarships for low-income people in struggling school districts, as long as we fully fund public education. My view on this has not changed,” Shapiro added. “This is now an issue requiring negotiations between Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives and Senate Republican leaders, who lead each chamber in the Legislature.”

Authors Anna Orso and Katie Bernard contributed to this article.

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