Push for Pennsylvania vouchers, backed by governor, could upend Philadelphia public schools

Gov. Josh Shapiro in a blue suit and white shirt talks to a group of high school students in a classroom.
Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro has joined Pennsylvania GOP legislators in supporting a bill to create private school vouchers in the state. Supporters say they would open up new opportunities for families seeking better educational options. Critics say vouchers would strip money away from districts that need more funding, not less. (Carly Sitrin / Chalkbeat)

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Pennsylvania’s Republican lawmakers are working to fast-track a bill to create a state private school voucher program that now has the backing of Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro, as  alarmed critics say it could devastate Philadelphia’s public schools.   

The bill creating a “Lifeline Scholarship Program” would set up spending accounts for families in areas with “low-achieving” public schools to use for tuition and fees at private schools instead. The Senate bill creating these scholarships includes language that would set up these vouchers for the 2023-24 school year.

It is unclear if lawmakers will ultimately include Lifeline Scholarships in the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, or try to pass it separately; the new fiscal year begins July 1. But if enacted, the bill would have a particularly significant impact on Philadelphia by making thousands of students in the city eligible for such an account, regardless of their family’s economic background. More than 100 Philadelphia public schools meet the state’s definition of “low-achieving.”

During his 2022 gubernatorial campaign, Shapiro said he backed the concept of Lifeline Scholarships, although in a June 23 Fox News interview he stressed that he would not agree to take money away from public schools to fund it: “We’ve got to invest more in our children, not less.” Yet his support for the voucher system still stands out at a time when state private school choice programs often attract much stronger support from Republicans than Democrats.

By supporting the voucher bill, Shapiro has split from education unions in the state, including the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union that endorsed him in last year’s election. In a June 22 letter to Shapiro, the PSEA and other unions called Lifeline Scholarships “clearly irresponsible.” Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan, whose union also endorsed Shapiro, also called the bill “outrageous.” 

Opponents say the bill will draw students and much-needed funding away from the Philadelphia school district at a time when it is already operating on a strained budget and facing declining enrollment.

“This could have a really big impact on schools in Philadelphia, and all of the other school districts across Pennsylvania that are the lowest performing, which is also correlated with the ones who receive the least funding,” said Priyanka Reyes-Kaura, K-12 education policy director at Children First PA advocacy group. “That’s what I’m really concerned about, that the districts that desperately need public funding to better serve their students are those who are going to be hurt by this lifeline scholarship program.”

The state already oversees two private school choice programs. But school choice supporters say students who attend low-performing schools in cities like Philadelphia, where charter school seats are limited and selective admissions lotteries have major issues, need more options. And they’re betting Lifeline Scholarships are the most bipartisan way forward. 

Guy Ciarrocchi, a fellow with the conservative-leaning Commonwealth Foundation, said Philadelphia could be “on the edge of the biggest, most impactful, positive change in education in three decades.”

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A ‘very ambiguous’ school choice bill?

The legislation would create a Lifeline Scholarship Fund within the state Treasury to help students who attend or live within the attendance boundary of a “low achieving” school to pay tuition costs, school-related fees, and special education services fees at a participating private school.

According to Pennsylvania law, a “low-achieving school” is a traditional public school that is ranked in the lowest 15% of schools in the state, based on standardized test scores. Data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education show 139 of 217 district-operated schools in Philadelphia are considered “low-achieving.” 

For the 2023-2024 school year, those scholarships would be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, “considering money available in the fund.” There is no price tag currently attached to the bill. 

Students could receive scholarships of anywhere from $2,500 to $15,000, depending on their grade and their special education status.

Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters PA, which opposes the bill, said in an interview the bill is “very ambiguous” and could potentially apply to any student in Philadelphia, since more than half of the public schools in the city are considered “low achieving” under that state definition. 

Overlapping attendance zones could mean a seven-year-old living in the attendance boundary of a low achieving high school could be considered eligible, even though they are not yet old enough to attend that school, Spicka said. But she added that the bill language doesn’t make this absolutely clear.

Spicka also raised the issue of “double dipping.” Pennsylvania has two programs, the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit and Educational Improvement Tax Credit programs, that give tax breaks to businesses that donate to organizations that provide private school scholarships to students. They both serve students in the bottom 15% of schools statewide.  

Nathan Akers, a spokesperson for the Lifeline Scholarship bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Judy Ward, said in an email that “it is my understanding that there is no prohibition in the lifeline legislation on someone who is receiving a lifeline scholarship from also receiving scholarship money under the [Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit] program.”

However, Lifeline Scholarships would be the state’s first school choice program to use state funds, rather than private donations to scholarship-granting groups.

Opponents also say the voucher plan would fly in the face of a judge’s ruling early this year that found Pennsylvania’s school funding system unconstitutional. Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer said in February that the system treats students in low-wealth school districts unfairly, and ordered lawmakers to revamp it. Shapiro previously sided with the plaintiffs in the funding lawsuit, who said the state needs to invest billions more in schools annually. 

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Earlier this month, Jubelirer gave lawmakers 30 days to appeal her ruling.

Asbestos, gun violence could fuel support for vouchers

Data on the success of school choice programs in Pennsylvania has been limited and hard to parse. In recent years, studies of voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio have shown that students’ test scores did not improve, and in fact tended to decline. Another study of Washington, D.C., found that vouchers had no clear effect on test scores. Other research on outcomes later in life for students who used vouchers showed neutral or positive results.   

Ciarrocchi said Philadelphia families might be growing impatient with public schools for several reasons. He cited ongoing school closures due to damaged asbestos, a gun violence epidemic that’s killed more than 20 students this academic year, and students who have been shut out of the lottery program for selective admissions schools or are on charter schools waiting lists.

“This is a chance to do something historic for the poorest of the poor in the schools that are clearly at the bottom,” Ciarrocchi said. “You look at the grades and you look at the violence and you look at the problems, that’s why they want a choice.”

But Reyes-Kaura said there’s a longer-term vision at stake. She argued the state should be focused on improving the education funding formula for all students.

“I understand why a parent who is desperate to get their child a better education might see a lifeline scholarship as something promising,” Reyes-Kaura said. “But it’s also a program that has the power to really detract from a moment where we could be rebuilding the public education system, to make it fair for everyone.” 

Correction: June 27, 2023: A previous version of this story misstated a decision from Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn JubelirerJubelirer’s decision gives Republican lawmakers 30 days to appeal her ruling that found Pennsylvania’s school funding system unconstitutional.

Carly Sitrin is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Contact Carly at csitrin@chalkbeat.org.

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