Pennsylvania Democrats, Shapiro cut budget deal without school voucher program

Governor Josh Shapiro, in a dark blue suit and white shirt, stands in a circle of students
Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro has vowed to line-item veto the school voucher program appropriation from the Pennsylvania state budget when it hits his desk. (Carly Sitrin / Chalkbeat)

A push by Pennsylvania Republicans and Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro for a state-funded voucher program appears to be dead for now, after Shapiro said the program will not be enacted as part of the state budget.

In a statement Wednesday, the governor said he did not want to further hold up the already overdue budget. Last week, the Democratic-controlled House Rules Committee knocked down legislation that would have set up a $100 million so-called Pennsylvania Award for Student Success Scholarship Program.

As part of a deal with the House, which has a one-vote Democratic majority, lawmakers in that body passed the $45.5 billion budget bill with the voucher language included. Shapiro has promised to line-item veto the appropriation when it comes to his desk. Late Wednesday evening, the House voted 117 to 86 to send the bill to Shapiro.

“Without enabling legislation setting up this program, my Administration legally cannot implement it,” Shapiro said in his statement. “Knowing that the two chambers will not reach consensus at this time to enact PASS, and unwilling to hold up our entire budget process over this issue, I will line-item veto the full $100 million appropriation and it will not be part of this budget bill.” 

Though the proposed voucher program will not be enacted as part of the state budget, Shapiro signaled similar proposals will continue to be brought up in the coming months as he has made clear he supports the idea of a state-backed, school-choice program.

“While I am disappointed the two parties could not come together, [House Majority] Leader [Matthew] Bradford has given me his word … that he will carefully examine and consider additional education options including PASS, Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC), and Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) as we work to address our public education needs in light of the Commonwealth Court’s recent education ruling,” Shapiro wrote in a statement.

In February, a Commonwealth Court judge declared Pennsylvania’s school funding system unconstitutional and ordered the General Assembly to bring it into compliance. While including some significant increases, this budget does not fundamentally overhaul the Commonwealth’s approach to education spending to provide adequate funding to all districts and make it more equitable. 

Asked about vouchers, Philadelphia Superintendent Tony Watlington said in a statement that his hope is that lawmakers will focus on adequately and equitably funding education so that Philadelphia students have the necessary resources to get “the education they deserve and need.”

The voucher program — negotiated between Shapiro and Senate Republicans — quickly became a sticking point in budget discussions. In a budget it passed on June 30, the GOP-controlled Senate revised an earlier voucher plan to make it more palatable to holdouts by adding household income limits and reporting requirements for private schools. It also got a new name: PASS, rather than the previously proposed “Lifeline Scholarship Program.” 

As written, the majority of Philadelphia School District students would have been eligible under both the PASS or Lifeline versions of the voucher program. Critics said either version has the potential to upend the city’s public school system.

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Philadelphia Board of Education President Reginald Streater told Chalkbeat in a text Wednesday that “vouchers are a red herring and will not address the needs of the families who depend the most on public education.” He said the voucher proposal “feels like a dereliction of duty,” and that fully funding education would solve many of the district’s challenges.

“We are on the cusp of an educational renaissance,” Streater said. “The last thing Philadelphia needs is any legislation that adversely impacts a scintilla of funding, resources and attention that would have any unintended or intended effect of kneecapping Philadelphia’s collective efforts and momentum to provide our city with the public education system our students deserve.”

Meanwhile, proponents of the voucher program, including the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, said it could have been one of “the biggest, most impactful, positive change[s] in education in three decades.”

Ultimately, Democrats in the House stood firmly opposed to any state-backed voucher program, blocking the budget bill late on Friday and killing the separate Lifeline Scholarship voucher bill in the House Rules Committee.

“This is an embarrassing setback for Governor Shapiro on his first budget and at the hands of his own party,” Erik Telford, a spokesperson for the Foundation, said in an email. “Shapiro would rather cave to Matt Bradford than stand firm behind his pledge to support the kids trapped in failing schools, despite having reached a bipartisan agreement with support in the House and the Senate.”

Pennsylvania’s other school choice programs

Pennsylvania already has two programs that promote school choice: the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit and Educational Improvement Tax Credit. Both give tax breaks to businesses that donate to organizations that provide private school scholarships to students. 

Those programs are notoriously opaque as state law prohibits the collection of information on academic achievement of EITC voucher students in particular. Although touted as a boon for low-income families, EITC has broad eligibility requirements — up to 500% of the poverty line. Families with three children and earning up to $168,000 a year can qualify. 

OSTC, a much smaller program, is targeted more narrowly to families living in the attendance boundaries of the 15% of lowest-achieving schools in the state. Philadelphia has 139 such schools, which represents 36% of the 382 in the state, the largest number by far among the 500 districts in the Commonwealth.  Both programs have steadily increased in cost over time; today, they are collectively funded at $340 million.

Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters PA, which opposes all voucher programs, said in an interview the PASS program’s  ambiguous language could open the door to double or triple-dipping, allowing families to obtain funding from multiple school-choice programs at once.

Critics of both iterations of the voucher program also said it didn’t include enough protections against discrimination. Voucher programs in some states have been criticized for sending state money to private schools that discriminate against LGBTQ students and teachers.

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“The goal of legislation like this … is to push vulnerable students and families into private and religious schools where they check their constitutional rights at the door,” Democratic Sen. Lindsey Williams said on the Senate floor before casting her no vote on June 30. 

“Private schools can and do discriminate against disabled kids. Private schools can and do refuse to admit LGBTQ+ students. Private schools can and do refuse to accept kids because they are poor or struggling academically,” Williams said.

Supporters tout vouchers as lifelines for students trapped in failing public schools. Many education activists reject that idea. 

Philadelphia and other districts like Reading and Norristown with high numbers of students in poverty aren’t failing, said Donna Cooper, executive director of Children First, an advocacy group that opposed the voucher program. 

Rather, she said, “the state legislature is failing them by not funding schools sufficiently.”  

Not all Philadelphia-area Democrats opposed the idea of vouchers, however. Democratic Sen. Anthony Williams, who represents parts of Philadelphia county, voted in favor of the budget with the voucher program included, saying parents in Philadelphia cannot wait for the public school system to improve or for the legislature to develop a new funding formula that meets constitutional muster. 

The Shapiro-backed PASS voucher program would have cost $103.7 million but was contingent on a commitment that vouchers would be part of a full budget agreement. That pact would have to include historic education spending and fund priorities such as student mental health, special education, universal free breakfast, and “sustained funding for necessary and urgent environmental repairs in Pennsylvania schools,” said Manuel Bonder, Shapiro’s press secretary, in a text message Thursday night. 

That historic increase never materialized. While the House added hundreds of millions in education spending to Shapiro’s proposed budget, the Republican-led Senate scaled back the total. 

For instance, it eliminated $100 million Shapiro had proposed for school building repair — a desperate need in Philadelphia where several schools have closed due to asbestos — and  increased special education by less than Shapiro wanted —  $50 million instead of $143 million. 

The Senate did increase so-called “Level Up” funding targeted to the 100 districts with the lowest per-pupil spending, including Philadelphia, which Shapiro’s proposed budget did not include.

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Under the approved budget, basic education spending, the single largest line item, will increase by $567 million to a total of nearly $7.9 billion. 

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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

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