Gov. Shapiro, Spend More on Public Schools Not Vouchers

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As Gov. Josh Shapiro prepares to deliver his second budget address tomorrow, he is widely expected to take a major step toward delivering on his campaign promise to fully fund Pennsylvania’s public schools with a proposal to invest billions of dollars over the next seven years. This plan, outlined in a recent report from the Basic Education Funding Commission that the governor supported, responds to a February 2023 Commonwealth Court ruling that Pennsylvania’s current approach to funding public education is unconstitutional and discriminates against students in low-wealth districts.

Recent comments from the governor have fueled speculation that his budget will also include a proposed investment in a private school voucher program, such as the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) Scholarship, which Shapiro supported last spring. 

At a moment when investing in our public schools has taken on new legal and moral urgency, proposing vouchers would be a mistake, undermining the governor’s own goals of building a constitutional public education system and ensuring opportunity for our most vulnerable students.

Shapiro, along with supporters of private school vouchers in the General Assembly, appears sincere in his belief that vouchers will help “every child of God,” particularly economically disadvantaged students in struggling public schools, get a fair shot at a great education. Shapiro calls this a “common-sense” idea, and at face value, who would object to a proposal to, in the governor’s words, “help kids that are most in need” improve their academic outcomes? 

I share Shapiro’s passion for ensuring opportunity for all students – I consider it my life’s work. I began my career treating the very children who need more opportunity and took that experience with me as I chaired the state-appointed board overseeing the Philadelphia School District. In this position, I saw first-hand the struggles of students and our public schools, so I’m not reflexively opposed to school choice. If the evidence showed that private school vouchers actually improve outcomes for economically disadvantaged students, I wouldn’t hesitate to support them. 

Unfortunately, evidence shows the opposite: private school voucher programs don’t work to improve student achievement, and they also enable state-sanctioned discrimination and drain resources from our already-underfunded public schools. 

The most common talking point used by voucher proponents is that they will serve as a “lifeline” to help kids escape failing schools. The schools designated as “failing,” which overwhelmingly and uncoincidentally fall in underfunded districts, are identified based on state test scores. But the private schools being pointed to as lifelines aren’t required to participate in state testing, and the PASS Scholarship voucher program wouldn’t require them to report the kind of student academic data for which public schools are held accountable. If we look to other states that have enacted vouchers, research shows that not only have these programs failed to improve academic achievement; they have had profoundly negative effects on student performance. One leading researcher found that voucher programs in Ohio and Louisiana caused greater academic regressions for participating students than Hurricane Katrina and the COVID-19 pandemic. Put simply, private school vouchers in other states have been completely ineffective in achieving the governor’s stated purpose, and unless a voucher program in Pennsylvania requires participating schools to administer state tests, we won’t know if vouchers are improving achievement here, either. 

Equally troubling is the fact that vouchers could lead to discrimination on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, disability, race, and other factors. While public schools are required by law to serve all students, regardless of their background, private schools, which are not bound by the same federal and state civil rights laws, can discriminate in their admissions and disciplinary policies. A recent analysis of the policies of private schools that participate in Pennsylvania’s existing tax credit scholarship program found that many of these schools, the vast majority of which are religious, have policies that allow them to refuse admission to or expel students on discriminatory grounds. Shapiro has been an ardent defender of religious freedom and protection for LGBTQ+ Pennsylvanians; surely he wouldn’t allow public dollars to flow to private religious schools without insisting they adhere to the same anti-discrimination policies as our public schools.

Finally, while the governor has insisted that any voucher program would be “additive” and would not drain resources from public schools, as the former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, I know too well that state revenues are finite and they are in high demand. A small program easily becomes a big one; in state after state with vouchers, the program started as a small narrowly-tailored program that ballooned over time to a much more expensive, less restricted program that eventually necessitates state cuts to public schools. 

I share the governor’s concern for our most vulnerable students. But the best way to serve those students isn’t to create a new, unaccountable voucher program; this would undermine our public education system and further infringe the constitutional protections of children. The court was very clear we must invest additional resources to remedy the constitutional harm already being imposed on our children. The plaintiffs in the school funding lawsuit have also been clear that “funding private schools with public dollars” will not bring us “a single dollar closer” to addressing the court’s ruling, and until the $5.4 billion school funding adequacy gap is closed, any dollar spent on vouchers further delays and denies justice for underfunded public schools.

To cement his legacy as a public education champion, Gov. Shapiro should put his entire focus this budget season on ensuring adequate, equitable, constitutional funding for the schools that serve all our students and ensure the state’s 1.7 million public school students, each and every one of them, are guaranteed the freedom to learn and grow up able to prosper and preserve our democracy.

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