Perhaps you have heard of them.
Introduced by Sen. Judy Ward (R-Blair/Fulton/ Huntingdon/Juniata/Mifflin), Senate Bill 795 creates a program that will make scholarships available to families living in the Commonwealth’s lowest-achieving school districts.
According to Ward, “this legislation will give more children attending low-performing school districts the opportunity to attend a school that better meets their needs.”
The term “low-achieving school” is defined as “a public school that ranked in the lowest 15% of the school’s designation as an elementary school or a secondary school based on combined mathematics and reading scores from the annual assessment administered in the previous school year and for which the department of education has posted results on the department of education’s publicly accessible internet website. The term does not include a charter school, cyber charter school or area career and technical school.”
There are 382 schools – elementary and secondary – on Pennsylvania’s 2022-23 list compiled by the Department of Education.
- Philadelphia (152)
- Allegheny County (43)
- Berks (20)
- Delaware (19)
- Lehigh (17)
- Luzerne (15)
- Lancaster (14)
- Dauphin (12), Erie (12)
- Montgomery (9)
- York (8)
- Bucks (7)
- Beaver (5), Washington (5)
- Schuylkill (4), Westmoreland (4)
- Cambria (3), Chester (3), Fayette (3), Lebanon (3)
- Greene (2), Lawrence (2), Mercer (2), Warren (2)
- Blair (1), Bradford (1), Cameron (1), Carbon (1), Clearfield (1), Forest (1), Huntingdon (1), Indiana (1), Monroe (1), Northampton (1)
Under the proposed legislation, parents with children in grades 1-12 who reside within the attendance area of a district school in the bottom of performance metrics based on state testing would be eligible to receive a scholarship. Lifeline Scholarships could only be used for education expenses associated with the new education instruction.
As proposed in the legislation, a separate lifeline scholarship program would be established in the State Treasury to provide $2,500 grants for half-day kindergarten students; $5,000 for full-day kindergarten through eighth grade students; $10,000 for ninth through 12th graders; and $15,000 for students with special needs regardless of grade level.
Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) is prepared to make Lifeline Scholarships, as well as increasing current tax credit programs, her top priority.”
So … what seems to be the problem?
Well, lifeline scholarships are also a new moniker for school vouchers that give taxpayer dollars to families for private school tuition and other associated costs.
Gov. Josh Shapiro indicated his support for school vouchers during the gubernatorial campaign with his website reading “Josh favors adding choices for parents and educational opportunity for students and funding lifeline scholarships like those approved in other states and introduced in Pennsylvania.”
Now, with state budget season in high gear as the June 30 deadline for adoption nears, Shapiro is under fire from a broad group of unions, including the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – Pennsylvania, and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 13, to veto any tuition voucher program that is in a budget that crosses his desk.
A letter from the eight unions on behalf of their one million members reads that “Pennsylvania has a moral and constitutional responsibility to fund its existing system of public education. Consideration of a tuition voucher program would flagrantly disregard the direction of the Commonwealth Court in William Penn School District et al. v. Pa. Department of Education et al. Therefore, 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.”
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan said “In the wake of the landmark school funding lawsuit once and for all confirming what we have known for decades – that the way public education is funded in our Commonwealth is unconstitutional – it is outrageous that a bill that would siphon millions of dollars from public schools is even under consideration. I call on the State Senate, the State House, and Governor Shapiro to unequivocally reject any and all voucher schemes.”
Both sides of the issue are throwing around numbers and statements.
The Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Harrisburg, says school choice reforms are significantly less costly than average per-pupil spending at public schools, which is over $21,200. In contrast, the average Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) scholarships are respectively between $2,500 and $2,600, while Education Opportunity Accounts (EOAs) would be about $7,000 per student.
Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a project of the left-leaning Keystone Research Center, says in 2022-2023 the EITC and OSTC programs will provide $340 million to private scholarship organizations, which award tuition vouchers to families whose children attend private and religious schools. It also notes that state law explicitly prohibits the collection of information about who benefits from these programs, so there is no evidence that EITC/OSTC programs benefit children in poverty or help students in low-achieving schools attend higher achieving schools.
PA Schools Work even threw the governor’s words back at him, urging Shapiro in a letter that he “devote all available state resources to meeting your constitutional obligation to the hundreds of thousands of public school students who are desperately trying to learn in under-resourced schools.” Then, citing his inaugural address, added the capper: “That only by setting the table of opportunity and inviting all to sit and partake can we advance the cause of real freedom. The kind of real freedom that comes when we devote real resources to that young child’s public school to make sure she has a shot.”
Pennsylvania currently grants businesses tax credits for donating to private school scholarships. Supported by Republicans, these programs were expanded under former Gov. Tom Wolf in exchange for increases to public school funding.
But the state has never before directly given families money to pay for private school.