Time For PA to Expand Education Choice

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Since her own public school experience included bullying, inadequate teaching, and trauma, Amanda Golden-Mcleod is adamant about her daughter attending private school. Thanks to financial aid, she has managed to afford it so far. At a Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee hearing last month, Golden-Mcleod implored lawmakers to enact a new scholarship program so that “we can have a chance for our children to have a better future.”

Golden-Mcleod was advocating for Lifeline Scholarships, also known as the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) program. Lifeline/PASS would provide private school scholarships to students attending Pennsylvania’s lowest-achieving schools. The scholarships would be worth $2,500 to $15,000, depending on a student’s grade and need. These amounts represent a fraction of the more than $21,000 per student spent on average in Pennsylvania public schools. While Gov. Josh Shapiro vetoed the scholarships in this year’s state budget, the Pennsylvania State Senate included Lifeline/PASS in the fiscal code bills that it is currently considering.

Between the debate over Lifeline/PASS and a recent ruling in a school-funding lawsuit, the issue of how to improve education in Pennsylvania is a hot topic. On one side are those focused on the current public (i.e., government-run) school system and determined to funnel more money into it. On the other side are people who don’t think that public education in the 21st century must mean residentially assigned, government-run schools – there are numerous ways to educate children.

Looking beyond Pennsylvania, the latter idea is gaining momentum. Educational-choice policies that fund students for various options have expanded rapidly in recent years. This year alone, seven states enacted choice programs while ten expanded existing programs. Amazingly, ten states now have universal or nearly universal educational-choice programs, including vouchers, education-savings accounts (ESAs), and refundable tax credits.

ESAs are perhaps the most transformative and exciting program. While vouchers can only be used for private school tuition, ESAs can be used additionally for expenses like tutoring, curriculum, and services for children with special needs. This enables parents to customize their children’s education using multiple resources.

Let’s face it – an ESA-type of system that lets each child receive a customized education makes a lot more sense than assigning kids to schools based on where they live. No other sector of our society works like K-12 education. We’re not assigned by zip code to a grocery store, doctor, dentist, or car dealer. Not even other levels of education, like preschool or college, are residentially assigned. Perhaps it made some sense to design a system like this in the 1800s, when transportation and communication were very difficult. But it’s tough to defend such arrangements in 2023.

Even the Pennsylvania constitution reflects the need to think more broadly about education. From its initial 1776 version through the 1874 revision, Pennsylvania’s constitution had mandates concerning public schools. The 1874 language reads, “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public schools.” But when the constitution was amended in 1968, the wording was changed. It now reads, “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.

A system of public education can include a multitude of options, with parents able to choose the best environment for their child. The judge in the school-funding lawsuit seemed to recognize this. “The options for reform are virtually limitless,” her ruling states. “The only requirement, that imposed by the Constitution, is that every student receives a meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and civically, which requires that all students have access to a comprehensive, effective, and contemporary system of public education.”

While not perfect, the Lifeline/PASS program is a step toward funding students instead of schools. Despite vetoing the program, Shapiro has frequently expressed support for giving kids and families options through Lifeline/PASS. As lawmakers in both chambers and the governor debate the final details of the fiscal code bills, parents like Amanda Golden-Mcleod hope they’ll put politics aside and give children more educational opportunities by approving Lifeline/PASS.

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