Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro delivers his first budget address to a joint session of the state House and Senate on March 7, 2023 (Photo by Amanda Mustard for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star).
As the debate over the 2023-24 state budget moves into its final days, Pennsylvania’s largest teachers union has broken with the Shapiro administration over a push to authorize private school vouchers.
In a statement released Friday, Pennsylvania State Education Association President Rich Askey said the union is “absolutely opposed to ‘lifeline scholarships’ or any other tuition voucher scheme” as a part of a final spending plan.
The ‘Lifeline Scholarship’ proposal, sponsored by Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, would award scholarships to first through 12th grade students “who reside within the attendance area of a district school in the bottom of performance metrics,” based on state test results.
The scholarships only could be used to pay for “education expenses associated with the new education instruction,” Ward wrote in a memo seeking support for the proposal. A version of the bill passed the state House last year, PennLive reported at the time.
Shapiro has expressed support for the proposal, frustrating his Democratic allies in the General Assembly, the investigative news website Spotlight PA reported last week.
The debate over whether to authorize tuition vouchers so that K-12 students can attend private schools has gained currency since February’s Commonwealth Court ruling declaring the state’s public school funding system unconstitutional, Spotlight PA also reported.
In her 786-page decision, Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer tasked policymakers with coming up with a fix to the system.
In his statement, Askey referenced the state court ruling, warning that “anything that distracts lawmakers from finding ways to meet their constitutional obligation is something that 1.7 million public school students can’t afford and PSEA won’t tolerate.”
In his letter, Askey called on lawmakers in the state House, where Democrats have a narrow 102-101 majority to oppose any effort to pass a vouchers program.
“A large group of lawmakers in the House has voted against voucher schemes like this in the past,” Askey said. “With their support and clear opposition to ‘lifeline scholarships,’ we can stop this terrible idea and together focus on fixing our unconstitutional public school funding system.”
The variable there: Republicans — along with a handful of Democrats — support such programs.
Last week, a broad coalition of labor groups, including PSEA, Council 13 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Local 1776 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, and others sent a letter to Shapiro and acting Education Secretary Khalid Mumin underlining their opposition to any effort to fund a voucher program.
“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,” the labor leaders wrote.
They added that the “tuition voucher exercise, timed conveniently in the final days of FY 2023-24 budget deliberations, is keeping policymakers from addressing actual problems like our unconstitutional public school funding system and the school staff shortage crisis.”
The Democratic governor has made no secret of his support for vouchers — which has been known since his campaign for governor in 2022.
“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,” the Democrat noted on his campaign website.
Answering questions from reporters on the campaign trail last fall, Shapiro said he’s for “fully funding public education. I’m for making sure we give parents the ability put their kids in the best situation for them to be able to succeed,” according to PennLive.
Shapiro also said he was “for making sure we add scholarships like lifeline scholarships to make sure that that’s additive to their educations. That it gives them other opportunities… to be able to help them achieve success,” PennLive reported.
In his Friday statement, Askey argued that “diverting one cent of taxpayer money to a tuition voucher scheme for private and religious schools is absolutely irresponsible, no matter what name you call it.”
Lawmakers and the administration have until midnight on June 30 to approve a new spending plan.
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