Opposition to New School Voucher Program Builds as Budget Deadline Looms

Shown is a class room at Penn Wood High School in Lansdowne, Pa., Wednesday, May 3, 2023. As schools across the country struggle to find teachers to hire, more governors are pushing for pay increases and bonuses for the beleaguered profession. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

By Sean Kitchen

June 28, 2023

Conservative lawmakers are looking to establish a new voucher program as part of the state budget. Lifeline Scholarships that are funded by the commonwealth will allow students from Pennsylvania’s poorest school districts to attend private or religious schools.

A new form of school vouchers championed by right-wing organizations are making their way into the Pennsylvania state budget. 

Instead of being funded through tax credits like the Educational Improvement Tax Credit and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit programs, the new voucher program will be funded directly by the state, using taxpayer dollars.   

Senate Bill 795 establishes the Lifeline Scholarship program and allows students in Pennsylvania’s lowest performing public schools to receive money to attend private or religious schools. 

There are 382 schools across the commonwealth, and 152 schools in Philadelphia, that are “low-achieving,” which state law describes as a public school that ranks in the lowest 15% of schools in the state, based on standardized test scores. Under the bill, students from these schools would be eligible for scholarships ranging between $2,500 for half-day kindergarten students to $10,000 for high school students. 

The bill is currently sitting in the Senate Education Committee, but its language could be inserted in a budget bill that sets education funding for the upcoming school year. 

At a press conference in Harrisburg on Tuesday, Arthur Steinberg, President of the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania, spoke about how Pennsylvania’s voucher programs have ballooned in size in recent years. 

“Before this expansion, they’re funded to the tune of $390 million dollars. Just think what that could do across the commonwealth [in terms of] keeping tax rates down, increasing staff at schools and remediating toxic conditions” Steinberg said. 

The bill does not allocate a specific amount of funding, nor implement a spending cap, so the vouchers could cost Pennsylvania hundreds of millions of dollars annually. 

That’s what’s happened in other states that have created voucher programs. 

The Arizona Mirror reported that a voucher program estimated to cost $65 million is actually poised to cost Arizona $900 million and Iowa Starting Line reported that a new voucher program will cost the state $878 million. 

State Rep. Peter Schweyer (D-Lehigh), who chairs the House Education Committee, told Spotlight PA that he opposes the lifeline scholarship program and that “this bill would not be considered in my committee.” 

However, he heeded caution because the bill’s language could become part of a larger budget deal.

“I’ve been around long enough to know that all kinds of weird stuff happens during budget season,” Schweyer said.  

Opposition to the new voucher program ramped up last Friday after Gov. Josh Shapiro and incoming Secretary of Education Khalid Mumin sent a letter to the Senate Education Committee saying that they support the program.

The Pennsylvania Education Association (PSEA), the state’s largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 13 and other unions sent a letter to the governor highlighting their opposition to the scholarships. 

The letter stated that “voucher programs are not a remedy included in the Commonwealth Court’s decision ruling that Pennsylvania’s school system is unconstitutional.” 

As reported by Spotlight PA, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court issued a historic ruling in February and stated that the commonwealth’s funding for public schools is so inadequate that it violates the state constitution. 

“It is clearly irresponsible to appropriate state funds for tuition vouchers that benefit private and religious schools when the commonwealth hasn’t met its most basic duty to students who attend our public schools – the same public schools that the Commonwealth Court has determined are unconstitutionally underfunded,” union officials stated in their joint letter.

The letter also highlights the lack of accountability for private or religious schools, even though they are benefiting from public spending. 

In a separate press release, Rich Askey, President of the PSEA, said “Diverting one cent of taxpayer money to a tuition voucher scheme for private and religious schools is absolutely irresponsible, no matter what name you call it.

“PSEA is absolutely opposed to ‘lifeline scholarships’ or any other tuition voucher scheme,” he added. 

Author

  • Sean Kitchen

    Sean Kitchen is the Keystone’s political correspondent, based in Harrisburg. Sean is originally from Philadelphia and spent five years working as a writer and researcher for Pennsylvania Spotlight.

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