The Letter That Sank School Choice in Pennsylvania
One of the most overused expressions in sports, politics, or any competitive endeavor is “they pulled defeat from the jaws of victory.” But sometimes the expression fits.
School-choice advocates and lobbyists made one of the biggest errors I’ve seen in almost 20 years of working in politics and public policy, helping to sink a major initiative in Pennsylvania – a private school voucher program called Lifeline Scholarships.
Last summer, then-gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro signaled openness to Lifeline Scholarships, a school voucher program that provides funding to families in the poorest 15% of school districts. Shapiro’s support for the policy was notable because it broke with traditional Democratic allies, including unions.
In the early months of Shapiro’s administration, the new governor courted support and favor with state Senate Republicans. Republicans were complimentary of Gov. Shapiro’s first 100 days, from his response to the East Palestine train derailment to his budget address.
Between the governor’s previous support for Lifeline Scholarships, his relationship building with the Senate Republicans, and a budget season poised for compromise, it seemed that Lifeline Scholarships had genuine prospects for inclusion in a larger budget deal.
As the budget deadline inched closer, the Senate passed a budget that included funding for Lifeline Scholarships and associated legislation to implement the policy. Republican leadership in the Senate touted the Shapiro administration’s support for the program. The administration, however, disputed that this was a final agreement or that a deal had been reached. The debate over the bill set off a furious lobbying effort on both sides of the aisle.
After the bill passed the Senate and the associated funding was included in the Senate budget, school-choice advocates and lobbyists pressed the Shapiro administration and House Democrats to pass both pieces and finalize the state budget. A network of school-choice advocates made their case via mainstream media, social media, and paid ads. Both sides ramped up their work to influence lawmakers and their constituents.
You often turn to third-party validators or messengers in advocacy communications to carry your message. You want messengers that connect with your audience or carry credibility. Sometimes you turn to non-traditional messengers or voices whom the audience might not associate with a particular issue. For example, if you’re advocating for an increase in the minimum wage and your target audience is conservative Republicans, you would try to get business groups to weigh in on your behalf. Conversely, it wouldn’t be helpful to this target audience if, say, Bernie Sanders jumped into the conversation and tweeted his support of a minimum-wage bill.
Someone in the school-choice movement missed this class at public relations school.
At a time when lobbying was at its most intense, the school-choice movement sent a letter to the Shapiro administration, which was made public It outlined the case for the voucher legislation and encouraged Gov. Shapiro to support the bill and lobby his fellow Democrats.
So far, so good.
One of the first signatures on the letter was from Meek Mill, a Philadelphia rapper who has fought for criminal-justice reform alongside Republicans and Democrats, including Gov. Shapiro.
A trio of prominent music industry executives with Philadelphia roots?
Dick Armey, the former Republican House Majority leader from Texas? Weird.
Bill Bennett, Ronald Reagan’s Education Secretary? Not great.
Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s education secretary? A conservative bogeywoman who Josh Shapiro sued over her education policies. Catastrophically bad.
More signatures came from a litany of conservative organizations, from ALEC to Jeb Bush’s education-choice group, many with missions to defeat Democrats and their policies.
Remember, at this point in the legislative process, school-choice advocates had to appeal to Democrats. Instead, they called on some of the most noxious messengers, by Democratic standards, whom they could find.
The letter and the response from the public-education advocacy community galvanized Democrats in the House and made it clear who stood on which side.
The letter put it in clear terms: to support a school voucher bill, Democrats had not just to cross their strongest allies but to side with opponents who had spent years attacking their policies, intentions, and values.
Suddenly, the momentum for the school voucher bill halted. Over the next few days, House Democrats held their ground against including vouchers in the budget.
And the failure of school-choice advocates culminated in Gov. Shapiro’s vowing to veto the voucher funding that he had previously supported.
No single act has backfired so badly in recent memory in Pennsylvania politics.
Whether it was hubris or incompetency, the plan to send a letter filled with signatures from the most conservative organizations killed school vouchers for the time being in Pennsylvania.
The organizers behind the effort failed to heed one of the principle rules of advocacy communications: the messenger matters as much as the message. School-choice supporters snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.