Pennsylvania budget deadline looms as debate over school vouchers continues

By: and - June 30, 2023 6:18 pm
The ceiling of the main Rotunda inside Pennsylvania’s Capitol building. May 24, 2022. Harrisburg, Pa. (Photo by Amanda Berg, for the Capital-Star).

The ceiling of the main Rotunda inside Pennsylvania’s Capitol building on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star).

Disagreement over a proposal creating private school tuition vouchers for K-12 public school students has become central to budget talks as Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro and lawmakers in the politically divided Legislature continued negotiations — and the Senate sent a budget plan to the House — on Friday.

The first-term governor and legislative leaders in the House and Senate still had not reached a compromise on a final spending plan as of early Friday evening, primarily fighting over a proposed voucher program, which has backing from Shapiro and GOP lawmakers, offering taxpayer-funded private school vouchers to students in low-performing public schools.

A new spending plan — which allocates billions of taxpayer dollars to fund education, infrastructure, economic development, public safety, and health care — must be passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by the governor by June 30 each year.

This year, education funding was expected to be in the spotlight after a Commonwealth Court judge declared the current state education funding system, which relies heavily on local property taxes, unconstitutional.

Democrats and Republicans stressed the need to invest in Pennsylvania schools but have varied in their approach to funding schools, with Democrats calling for increased Level Up funding toward the state’s poorest school districts and charter school accountability. Meanwhile, Republicans have stressed school choice and parental empowerment.

The GOP-controlled Senate voted 29-21, a party-line vote, on Thursday night to approve a previously unrelated House bill that lawmakers amended to include a $100 million voucher program letting parents of kids in 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.

Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, said the voucher bill was drafted with input from Shapiro, who previously voiced support for the program on the campaign trail for governor.

However, Democrats in the House and Senate oppose the measure, saying the voucher program would take taxpayer dollars away from public schools and give money to “unaccountable private institutions,” as Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, put it.

The House Rules Committee rejected the voucher bill with an 18-15 vote along party lines on Friday afternoon. 

Addressing committee Democrats during a heated debate, House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said the voucher program would address the failure of Pennsylvania’s public education system that has stranded students in poorly performing schools.

“We have before us today the ability to save children, to literally change the trajectory of their families for generations,” Cutler said, adding that voters elected Shapiro after he spoke in support of the concept during his campaign.

Majority Leader Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, said the Democratic Caucus’ priority is to begin work to comply with the Commonwealth Court’s order in the education funding case to fund schools equally across the state. 

“You see, every child truly means every child,” Bradford said, referencing Shapiro’s repeated statements that “every child of God” deserves a quality education.

The Senate on Friday voted 29-21, another party-line vote, to send a $45 billion budget that includes the $100 million voucher program to the House, which has a voting session scheduled at 10 a.m. Saturday. 

However, Bradford said Democratic leaders would need “several days” to respond to the Senate budget.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said the plan approved by the upper chamber “is not a final agreement and is just one more step in negotiations.” He added that the final spending plan should address adequacy and equity goals in the governor’s initial proposal and begin the work to bring the school funding system into constitutional compliance.

“As discussions continue, we will advocate for a responsible spending plan that meets the moment,” Costa said.

Meanwhile, Senate Republican leadership told reporters that the upper chamber had fulfilled its responsibility by voting on the budget proposal and sending it to the House. 

Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, and Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, said the plan, though not perfect, represented a compromise reached through a “give-and-take process” with the governor.

Bradford, in his remarks during the Rules Committee meeting, was critical of the Senate for waiting until the last day of the fiscal year to pass and share its proposal, noting that the House passed its version of the budget on June 5.

On Thursday, Shapiro released a statement saying all parties involved in budget negotiations wanted to reach an agreement and avoid a drawn-out fight, urging Senate Republicans to “give more than they’re used to” and telling House Democrats, who have a majority for the first time in 12 years, that they “can’t expect to get everything they’ve wanted over the last decade in one budget.”

Shapiro added that his office will continue to engage with leaders in both chambers until they make a deal.

“We funded Level Up. We funded Whole Home Repairs. Those are initiatives that our caucus is not entirely supportive of, not entirely comfortable with,” Pittman said. “But we gave, and we gave at the governor’s request with the hopes that it would help enact one of his top legislative priorities, lifeline scholarships, or now known as the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success.”

Pittman said budget talks with House Democrats “have been difficult,” saying leaders in the lower chamber and Shapiro don’t appear to be on the same page with their priorities despite being in the same political party. Lawmakers in the upper chamber will return home and let Shapiro and House Democrats figure out what happens next in the budget process, Pittman said.

“I find it so ironic that it was the Republicans that worked with the governor on his priorities, and we’re the ones standing behind him — and not the Democrats,” Ward said.

Ward added that if the House returns a budget bill to the Senate without the vouchers, the final result will be “a very slimmed down, scaled back budget.” But if Shapiro maintains his support for the initiative, Senate Republicans “will stand with him and fight for it,” she said.

“But at that point, if it’s not going to be part of the final product, there will be a different number in that budget,” Ward said. “Because all the things that we gave on, we will want to take back.”

Bradford previously declined to comment on whether he would accept a voucher program as part of a global deal that included House Democrats’ legislative priorities, such as workforce support, development, and public safety.

Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Policy Center, a progressive think tank, said Senate Republicans were unlikely to succeed in passing a voucher program, even with Shapiro’s support, after Democrats took control of the House for the first time in more than a decade. 

“They’re not going to pass something that radically restructures our education system or that would lead to that in this environment,” Stier said. “I think the governor understands that. I think the Senate Republicans are gonna come to understand it or we’re all going to be sitting here for a while.”

The delayed budget will have no significant immediate effect on state programs, Stier said. But is not unexpected given the new political dynamics in the Capitol, he added.

“I expect it’s going to take a week or two for people to … understand the political situation and start making a deal that lasts,” Stier said.

Last year, then-Gov. Tom Wolf and lawmakers reached a final budget agreement on July 8.

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Marley Parish
Marley Parish

Marley Parish covered the Senate for the Capital-Star.

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.