My Flock Needs Shapiro to Show Courage on Education Freedom

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Now is the time for courage. 

That’s the message that I and more than 50 fellow black pastors and religious leaders are delivering to Gov. Josh Shapiro. When he ran for office, he promised that he’d pass laws giving more educational freedom for children. He needs to keep that promise before the state budget is due on June 30. The families who attend my church and live in my community are counting on it. So are thousands of struggling kids across the state.

This opportunity is personal to me. I grew up in inner city Harrisburg. While I had good parents, our school system failed me. I only made it to 12th grade because I was one of the best football players in the city. When I graduated, I could barely read at a third-grade level. But nobody knew because I had college coaches from all over the country recruiting me.

But college football couldn’t save me. Three semesters in, I had a .67 GPA, which looking back, was still higher than it should have been. I lost my scholarship, dropped out of college, and went home to Pennsylvania. My parents told me I had to figure out a plan, but the truth is, I didn’t have one. What hope was there for a 19-year-old who couldn’t read or write?

The only reason I pulled out of my downward spiral is because of a pastor I met in North Carolina. He saw what no one else had – that I had potential outside of sports. He asked me to come stay with him, and I did. The first day I was there, he bought me a Goosebumps book and a highlighter. He taught me to read. Then he helped me get into a community college. Within a year, I received a full scholarship to the University of Minnesota. In May 2011, I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in business, and I later earned a Master of Divinity from Evangelical Seminary. Now, as a black pastor, my focus is uplifting people like me.

That’s why I founded Black Pastors United for Education and rallied so many other faith leaders in Pennsylvania to push for education freedom. There are so many kids – especially black and brown kids – in our state who have incredible potential that’s not being unlocked in public schools. (And to be clear, there are a lot of black and brown kids who are doing well in public schools.). How many of them will be saved, like me, by a random stranger later in life? Not many. To paraphrase Dr. Cornel West, your roots determine your routes in life. Our children need strong roots that will anchor a diversity of routes.

Gov. Shapiro promised to help them. It nearly happened last summer, when the state legislature passed a new program called Lifeline Scholarships as part of the budget. It would have given $100 million to low-income kids in Pennsylvania’s worst schools, without taking even a penny away from public schools. Families could have used this money to secure more educational opportunities, including at private or religious schools. But the governor vetoed the scholarships to keep his allies in the House happy. Since then, he has said he still supports Lifeline Scholarships, calling them “unfinished business” earlier this year.

Will history repeat? Only if our governor plays politics. But not if he shows leadership. That means pressuring even a few of his legislative allies to support education freedom in Pennsylvania. This isn’t about public versus charter versus private schools, as some people claim. Gov. Shapiro and the state legislature can support every kind of education simultaneously. We can fully fund public schools, which is Democrats’ top priority. We can listen to members of both parties to stop proposed cuts to cyber charter schools. And we can deliver the Lifeline Scholarships that Gov. Shapiro has promised and Republicans and even some Democrats have rallied around. 

If Gov. Shapiro rallies the legislature, he’ll give thousands of kids a better chance to unlock their God-given gifts. And Pennsylvanians will rally to help them do so. In 2021, I transformed my church into a learning center, providing an in-person environment for 30 kids during the worst of the pandemic. When we began, all but one were failing, but by the end of the year nearly all were passing, and most had A or B averages. Many of my fellow pastors have also set up schools in their churches to help kids failing in traditional classrooms. Lifeline Scholarships can help new and better schools get off the ground, ultimately helping the kids who are hurting the most.

That’s what this is all about: Uplifting kids who are facing a future of failure. I used to be that kid. It’s only through the grace of God that I was given another shot. As a state, we can’t blindly hope that the same will happen to the young boys and girls who are struggling today. But we can hope that Gov. Shapiro has the courage to help them.

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