House Majority Leader Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, speaks with reporters Thursday, June 29, 2023, after the state Senate passed a school vouchers bill tied to its budget proposal. (Capital-Star photo by Peter Hall)
(*This article was corrected at 9:49 a.m. on June 30, 2023, to correct a statement attributed to Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman.)
Pennsylvania House Democrats said that they would not act on a Senate bill passed Thursday night to provide taxpayer-funded private school tuition vouchers to children in low-performing school districts.
“There are not the votes for it, it’s not coming up and if it comes up it will be defeated,” House Majority Leader Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, told reporters late Thursday, the day before the state budget is due.
The Senate passed House Bill 479 with a 29-21 vote. Bradford said the House had not received the bill Thursday night, but when it returns to the lower chamber it would likely be defeated in the Rules Committee.
The legislation, which was introduced as an amendment to an unrelated House bill, would allow the parents of children in designated low-performing schools who earn less than 2.5 times the federal poverty level — $75,000 for a family of four — to apply for a scholarship.
Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro expressed support for the concept on the campaign trail last year.
Education Secretary Khalid N. Mumin told Senate leaders before his confirmation hearing this week that the governor favors choices for parents and “funding lifeline scholarships, as long as those choices do not impact school district funding.”
House Democrats have staunchly opposed the concept, saying there is no way to fund such scholarships without taking money that could be used to fund public schools.
Bradford said funding public schools is the caucus’ top priority in light of the Feb. 7 Commonwealth Court ruling that the state’s education funding system is unconstitutional because it relies heavily on property taxes and deprives students in poor communities.
Shapiro’s $44.4 billion budget proposal includes $1 billion in additional school funding, but House Democrats passed a budget bill June 5, that added nearly an additional $1 billion.
Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, said the Democrats’ proposal was “an impossible number.”
Asked whether Democrats could accept the voucher proposal as part of an overarching investment in public schools, Bradford said House Democrats are ready to discuss that but the voucher program is not part of that conversation.
Bradford said House leaders have few details of what the Senate plans to propose because the upper chamber has not passed a budget bill.
House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said his caucus stood “ready, willing and able,” to have discussions about the budget and important policy items.
“We’ve been repeatedly shut down through the amendment process, through procedural maneuvers and other shenanigans on the floor,” Cutler said.
“When you look at what’s transpiring now, it’s no surprise that they’re having difficulty communicating with not only the Senate, but now the governor,” Cutler said, noting that by opposing the voucher plan Democrats had abandoned the one issue where Shapiro found strong bipartisan support.
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