Details of the building conditions at King Elementary School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on May 30, 2023. (Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star)
The 2022 (and early 2023) election results in Pennsylvania produced a new governor and new leadership in both the state House and sate Senate, so it should come as no surprise the first attempt to negotiate a budget by these politicians ran into some snags.
The nature of the concerns and how the participants addressed them were unexpected, however, and reveal miscalculations by those involved which has jeopardized finalization of the state budget.
The primary dispute which pushed the commonwealth into budget overtime centered around a proposal to provide some families of children attending low performing public schools funding to send their children to a nonpublic school.
The details of the budget maneuverings have been well documented by the Capital-Star. But the future relationship between Gov. Josh Shapiro and the General Assembly as a result of this situation appears to be dire.
Republicans feel defeat has been snatched from the jaws of victory.
One day a Democratic governor was at odds with the Democratic leadership in the state House and Republicans were on the verge of creating a program that meshed with their long-term agenda of shifting public education funds to private entities and gutting the influence of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the teachers’ union.
The next, Shapiro changed course, resulting in a budget Senate Republicans would not have agreed to without the inclusion of the school voucher scheme. They now refuse to return to Harrisburg to complete the paperwork to allow the spending plan to be signed into law.
But Democratic legislators, despite gaining a temporary victory, may also not be entirely happy.
Shapiro has not dropped his support of the private school voucher concept. And there are additional budget-related actions and legislative priorities that remain to be considered with little hope of any cooperation from justifiably angry Senate Republicans.
What is the governor thinking? The most important thing to remember about his stance on the school voucher program is it is not out of character with his approach to a wide range of issues. Shapiro based his gubernatorial campaign on promoting policies aimed at addressing individual, instead of collective, needs.
But he can go overboard in trying to appeal to the individualistic streak many Americans wear as a badge of defiance. His support of funneling taxpayer money to private educational institutions is the most glaring example of this flaw.
Unlike most Republicans, who back school vouchers as a way to enrich their donors (i.e. Pennsylvania’s wealthiest person, Jeffrey Yass) and prevent students of their supporters from being exposed to viewpoints at odds with their narrow perception of the world, Shapiro appears to see this program as appealing to voters who want the best for their own children no matter how it impacts others in their community.
But leaders cannot focus on individual desires when they are in positions of power.
They must look to what is best for all citizens. And nothing is more important for all Pennsylvanians, and the future of democracy, than a strong public education system. It is in everyone’s best interest that all students get a quality education which exposes them to our diverse, secular society and enhances their critical thinking skills.
Supporters of school vouchers speak of students “trapped” in failing public schools. But public schools are deemed to be failures because they are held to accountability standards. The private institutions which would benefit from taxpayer dollars do not need to meet these standards – and they can impose a specific agenda, often religious, upon their students.
Promoting a private school voucher plan erodes support for our public education system. We already have far too many families opting out of our public schools, which is a significant factor in the growing divisions we are experiencing.
The elite have long used their wealth to segregate themselves from the masses via private schools, but the rise of home schooling and for-profit charter schools has extended this separation, to the detriment of society as a whole.
At this point the desire for a completed budget has forced the governor to back away from the school voucher scheme.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely we have heard the last of this issue.
Meanwhile, the ramifications from this ill-advised attempt to include it in the budget will only deepen the political and cultural divide in the Commonwealth and may imperil the best thing about this budget – the significant increase in education funding to begin to properly repair our public school system.
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