The Senate Education Committee is restoring the school voucher program at the center of last year’s budget fight

A bill restoring the school voucher program, killed by House Democrats during last year’s budget debates, passed the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday with bipartisan support. The program, called the PASS grant, would allow most students in the state’s lowest-performing school districts to spend up to $10,000 on private schools.

The PASS program was initially supported by Gov. Josh Shapiro during partisan state budget debates last year, but was opposed by House Democrats. Although the version of the budget passed by the Senate included funding for the voucher program, House Democrats refused to take it up unless Shapiro agreed to veto the item. Eventually it happened.

Tuesday’s move by the Senate Education Committee is almost certain to reignite the fight.

Public school advocates have long opposed school vouchers, arguing that the money would be better spent supporting the state’s public schools, especially in lithe of a recent court ruling that found the state’s public schools were unconstitutionally underfunded.

“Pennsylvania’s public school funding system is so unfair that the Commonwealth Court ruled it violates the state constitution,” said Aaron Chapin, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association. “Instead of sending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to private schools, we should focus on public schools, which educate 90% of Pennsylvania students.”

Supporters of the program note that unlike school voucher programs in other states, the PASS scholarship would not take money from the public schools recipients would otherwise attend.

Senator Anthony Williams (Philadelphia), the only one The Democrat on the committee to vote for the legislation noted that he also supports significantly increasing funding for public schools. But he also expressed skepticism that any amount of money could aid students stuck in the state’s worst public schools.

“You can’t look beyond the obvious,” Williams said. “There are parts of Pennsylvania, rural and urban, that are not covered by the public experience, and the billions of dollars we may or may not send them will not fix that. We can’t find teachers.

Both Democrats and Republicans in the Committee admitted that the bill presented basically meant the beginning of a battle over what to include in this year’s budget.

“I am not in the room when a budget agreement is being negotiated behind closed doors,” said Sen. Lindsey Williams (R-Allegheny), the minority committee chairwoman and a staunch opponent of sending state funds to nonpublic schools. “There is no trade in vouchers.”

Asked if Shapiro still supports the program, the spokesman pointed to his budget speech from earlier this year.

During the speech, Shapiro said he still supports some form of voucher funding for students in low-performing school districts to spend on “extra tutoring, books and computers, or yes, going to a different school.

Shapiro added: “Last year, the Senate passed a motion with important elements, but I support this matter and consider it unfinished.”

The 2025 budget must be passed by both the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House before it can be signed by Shapiro.

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