Debate over public education alternatives percolates as Pa. budget deadline nears

‘The court did not say that the General Assembly can comply with its legal obligations … by redirecting funds needed for public education to private schools,’ Education Law Center Director Deborah Gordon Klehr said

By: - June 27, 2023 6:16 pm

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan speaks during a rally opposing school vouchers on Tuesday, June, 27, 2023, at the Pennsylvania Capitol. (Capital-Star photo by Peter Hall)

(*This story was updated at 6:31 p.m. on Tuesday, June 27, 2023, to clarify the position of Gov. Josh Shapiro.)

Dual debates involving public education alternatives — among the most divisive issues before the Pennsylvania Legislature — simmered in the state Capitol on Tuesday as lawmakers worked toward a deadline Friday to pass the state budget. 

Educators and public school advocates voiced sharp opposition to school vouchers, an option Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro said he supports. While Shapiro has not endorsed specific legislation, a Republican-backed bill that would provide publicly-funded scholarships to send students in the state’s lowest performing school districts to private schools is pending action in the state Senate.

House Democrats, meanwhile, approved a bill that would cap taxpayer-funded tuition for cyber charter schools at $8,000 per student and return an estimated $500 million a year in overpayments to school district coffers.

Shapiro first expressed support for the so-called ‘lifeline scholarships’ on the campaign trail last year. 

The subject of school choice vouchers for students in the lowest-performing 15% of schools resurfaced last week when Education Secretary Khalid Mumin told members of the state Senate Education Committee before his confirmation vote that he would focus on education choices for parents. 

In a letter to the committee first reported by the investigative reporting website SpotlightPA, Mumin said Shapiro “favors adding choices for parents and education opportunity for students and funding lifeline scholarships as long as those choices do not impact school district funding.”

During  a rally on Tuesday, a coalition of teachers unions, school administrators, school boards and parent advocates said school vouchers would be devastating to underfunded school districts. 

They said the proposal by Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, is poorly timed as lawmakers consider how the General Assembly will comply with a state court ruling declaring that the education funding system is unconstitutional because it denies educational opportunities to children in poor communities.

“The court did not say that the General Assembly can comply with its legal obligations, and the court’s decision by redirecting funds needed for public education to private schools,” Deborah Gordon Klehr, the executive director of the Education Law Center, said.

The Education Law Center was one of the public interest law firms that represented six low-income school districts and parents in the lawsuit and months-long trial that led to the Commonwealth Court’s declaration funding disparities between school districts must be corrected.

Klehr said private school vouchers would siphon hundreds of millions of dollars away from public schools without moving Pennsylvania closer to satisfying its court-ordered obligation to support and maintain an effective public education system that is available to every child.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said it is “outrageous” that lawmakers are moving ahead with a voucher program instead of moving with urgency to comply with the court order. 

“Vouchers do not reinvest in a system of public education that has been underfunded for decades. They also do not provide desperately needed resources for all students regardless of their race, their gender identity, their religion, or their disability,” Jordan said.

House Education Committee Chairperson Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, said Tuesday that he would not bring the Senate vouchers bill up for consideration if it is passed in the upper chamber. 

Schweyer noted that it would be possible for a version of the bill to be called up for a vote on the House floor as part of a budget package without the Education Committee’s approval, but he also said he is not involved in House leaders’ negotiations.

In a 12-9 vote along party lines, the Education Committee sent cyber-charter school reform legislation sponsored by Reps. Joe Ciresi, D-Montgomery, and Rep. Maureen Madden, D-Monroe, to the House floor for a vote.

Public education advocates, school administrators and school boards have identified cyber-charter school tuition as a cause of strain on public school budgets and a burden to taxpayers because it does not reflect the actual cost of providing online education.

Under Pennsylvania’s charter school law, school districts are required to pay cyber-charter schools the same tuition as brick and mortar charter schools. That totals $1 billion in payments to the state’s 14 cyber charter schools, according to Education Department data.

Statewide, school districts paid charter schools about $185 million more than charters reported spending on special education, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, citing state data.

Ciresi, one of House Bill 1422’s prime sponsors, said the reform bill would eliminate overpayments by setting a statewide rate for cyber charter school tuition and changing the way special education payments are calculated.

“This bill gives us the opportunity for our taxpayers to save money and still promote the opportunity of school choice,” Ciresi said, stressing that it will not eliminate cyber charters as an option for parents and students.

The bill would also require advertisements for cyber charter schools to include a statement that the schools and the advertising are funded with tax money. It would also prohibit the use of tuition money to pay for parents and other family members to attend sporting events and other extracurricular activities.

Republican committee members called the bill “horrific” and discriminatory.

“I think it targets minority students and students with learning challenges and learning disabilities,” Rep. Joseph D’Orsie, R-York, said. D’Orsie made a motion to table the bill, which failed by only one vote. 

Rep. Napoleon Nelson, D-Montgomery, voted with the committee’s nine Republicans to table the bill, saying that the General Assembly should be preparing to make a multi-year investment in funds and human capital to address funding inequities. 

“Right now we’re talking about a minor relatively minor fix compared to the scope of the problem,” Nelson, who ultimately voted to approve the bill, said.

Republican lawmakers said the legislation would hurt the segment of public school children who have come to depend on cyber-charters for educational opportunities not offered in their districts or because disability keeps them from attending school in person. 

Rep. Ismail Smith-Wade-El, D-Lancaster, said it was a mistake to make the debate over education funding about picking sides, adding that lawmakers should be fighting over who can provide more money for schools. 

But Smith-Wade-El said the overpayment of tuition and the lack of restraints on how cyber charters spend the money made the choice clear for him.

“I don’t care if you are a brick and mortar charter, cyber-charter, … public cyber or just a regular public school district. If you are getting $1 … for special education, you better damn well be spending that on the students,” Smith-Wade-El said.

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.