Pa. education tour takes up school vouchers conversation in Philadelphia

Members of the House Appropriations and Education Committees participated in a panel discussion about a proposed school voucher program in Pennsylvania.

By: - October 25, 2023 8:15 pm

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The Pennsylvania Education Tour, which includes Democratic and Republican members of both the House Appropriations and Education Committees, heard from educators about the impact that a school voucher program would have in Pennsylvania during a panel discussion on Wednesday. And while some argued that vouchers offer school choice to parents in underperforming districts, others said voucher programs siphon away much-needed tax revenue from districts that can least afford it.

“Voucher plans like PASS are the educational equivalent of predatory lending,” Joshua Cowen, Professor of Education Policy at Michigan State University, told the panel of lawmakers. 

Cowen said based on his 20 years studying school vouchers, he did not believe Pennsylvania’s voucher program would succeed. And, he added, similar programs in other states serve as a warning of how vouchers could affect students in Pennsylvania. 

“Over the last decade, the academic results have been devastating,” Cowen said, “roughly on par with what COVID-19 or Hurricane Katrina did to test scores. Over the last 10 years, as vouchers have been scaled up statewide the results have been dreadful.”

Cowen said that most voucher receiving schools were either “financially distressed schools barely hanging on before the voucher bailout” or they’re “pop up schools” that are “opening just to cash in on the new subsidy.” 

Gov. Josh Shapiro voiced his support for a Senate Republican-backed $100 million school voucher program earlier this year during budget negotiations, however, he later line-item vetoed the program after House Democrats said they wouldn’t support it. 

But the governor has continued to advocate for a school voucher program, and Republicans in the state Legislature have not abandoned the plan

Maura McInerney, Legal Director of the Education Law Center, said during the hearing that the proposed school voucher program was “ill advised” because it would divert funding from public schools to private schools, utilize public dollars to support and to subsidize private schools that discriminate against students based on race, disability, religion, ethnicity, sex, and gender, and lacks transparency and accountability. Vouchers, McInerney said, simply fail to improve academic outcomes for children.

McInerney cited the February Commonwealth Court decision that ruled the state’s property tax-based funding system for K-12 public schools is unconstitutional.

“The General Assembly has an urgent task before it to create a constitutionally compliant funding system in compliance with the court’s order,” McInerney said. “The creation of vouchers is a needless diversion away from this core responsibility.”

But Keisha Jordan, President and CEO of Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia (CSFP) and Benjamin Scafidi, Professor of Economics and Director of the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University, testified that school vouchers can provide a lifeline to Pennsylvania students most in need.

“For CSFP students, scholarships that are funded through the tax credit program are life changing,” Jordan said. 

Jordan said that Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia is the “largest provider of K-8 private school scholarships in the state of Pennsylvania,” which primarily receives its funding through two state tax credit programs: the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and the  Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program (OSTC). The organization has been in existence since 2001 and has provided more than 70,000 scholarships to Philadelphia students, she said. 

EITC provides millions of potential tax dollars each year to private schools and educational programs. The program, which was created in 2001, has been championed by Republicans in the state Legislature, while Democrats and public school advocates have argued the money should go directly to the state’s public schools. OSTC provides tax credits to eligible businesses contributing to an Opportunity Scholarship Organization.

“And I don’t share this data to speak at all negatively about the public schools or the public school system,” Jordan said. “They have tremendous challenges, and we also believe in adequate funding for public schools. So scholarships need to be a part of a larger effort to reform education in Philadelphia, which includes adequately funding public schools.”

Scafidi disagreed with the claim that funding for a school voucher program takes away from public education. 

“They claim that we can’t have school choice because it steals money from public schools,” Scafidi said. “The reality is that public school students have more resources available to them when some students leave for any reason.”

Scafidi said that public schools retain most of the federal funds they receive, even when a student elects to attend a private school. 

But McInerney said that any funding going towards a school voucher program ultimately is less money that is used for public schools. 

“I just want to underscore the fact that we have said over and over again that our public school system is underfunded, and therefore, revenues that are generated in one pot will have to be going to the education pot,” McInerney said. “So it has an effect. It has a domino effect.”

House Appropriations Committee Chair Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) said that while school vouchers are “not taking money away,” from public school funding, he said funding for a proposed school voucher program “But yes, it is taking money away from the larger pot.”

Harris asked Cowen if any state “does educational options well.” 

Cowen cited Wisconsin, which has the country’s oldest school voucher program, as a model that is “preferable” in comparison to other states’, given its educational and financial oversight. That’s included removing at least one insolvent school from its voucher program, Cowen said.

However, he added, Pennsylvania’s proposed voucher program is problematic in comparison to other states that have already passed similar legislation. 

“The current language in the PASS Bill actively encourages students to leave public schools by requiring what amounts to advertising by the Commonwealth against local school districts,”  he said. 

“If the legislature were indeed to pass a plan like this, it’s critical that the bill contain far greater oversight provisions than what’s currently in it, which is more of a blank check, frankly, than most of the bills that I’ve seen nationally on this issue,” Cowen added.

The panel on Wednesday afternoon concluded two days of hearings in Philadelphia. 

On Tuesday, the joint committee hearing held panels which discussed supporting Black Educators and Black Students, improving literacy, plus a financial overview of the School District of Philadelphia. A panel on Wednesday morning discussed school facilities in Pennsylvania.

The next hearing for the Pennsylvania Education Tour is scheduled to take place on Nov. 2 in Wilkes-Barre. 

“The reason for this whole tour is that we actually have an opportunity to reimagine what education looks like in Pennsylvania,” Harris said Wednesday. “And I can tell you, whether we agree or disagree on issues, I know that my colleagues, all of us, really want to do this the right way. And that’s why we’re having this kind of discussion.”

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John Cole
John Cole

John Cole is a journalist based in Philadelphia. He's worked for various outlets such as The Northeast Times, PoliticsPA, and PCN. In these previous roles, he covered a wide range of topics from local civic association meetings to races across the commonwealth. He earned a degree in journalism from Temple University.