Schweyer: School tuition vouchers could blow up Pa. budget talks
Celebrities and former U.S. education secretaries are pushing Gov. Josh Shapiro and the Pennsylvania General Assembly to include tuition vouchers in the state's final budget agreement. The budget deadline under state law is Friday and it’s unclear whether negotiations will wrap up on time.
House Education Committee Chair Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, said the push for vouchers could blow up current budget negotiations. The current scheme under consideration is "lifeline scholarships," which he strongly opposes.
“The voucher program is getting a lot of conversation right now, and is absolutely detrimental to us getting a budget done,” Schweyer said. “Starting with the obvious as majority Chair of [the House Education Committee], I'm telling you that I won't want the bill out of committee. So now, there are other ways for that program to get done, but it's not getting done through my committee, period, full stop.”
- Gov. Shapiro is considering vouchers in state budget negotiations
- Many Democrats, including in Lehigh Valley, oppose vouchers
- Republican State Sen. Jarrett Coleman supports the lifeline scholarships
Celebrities Meek Mill and Shawn Gee joined former Education Secretaries Betsy DeVos and Bill Bennett in a letter Thursday urging state leaders to pass one of the two pieces of legislation that establishes lifeline scholarships designed to allow students from low-performing schools to use state funding to attend private schools. Jim Saunders, founder of CEO America, the Children's Education Opportunity Fund, also signed the letter.
The issue gained momentum when Pennsylvania's newly-confirmed state Education Secretary, Khalid Mumin, recently reiterated Gov. Josh Shapiro’s support for school choice. Unions and public school advocates fiercely and immediately hit back, saying the move would be detrimental to public education.
“We are incredibly disappointed that Secretary Mumin has suggested that Gov. Shapiro could be the first governor in Pennsylvania’s history to sign a school voucher bill,” said Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association in news release video.
In a joint letter to Shapiro, Mumin and the state general assembly, the association and several unions representing more than a million Pennsylvanians outlined their opposition.
“Tuition vouchers in any form redirect taxpayer resources that could be used to support public schools and the students they serve to private and religious schools,” the letter said. “Pennsylvania has a moral and constitutional responsibility to fund its existing system of public education.”
A bill sitting in the Senate Education Committee would establish Lifeline Scholarships, where students in low-performing schools would get state funding to attend private schools. The amount could range from $2,500 to $15,000 depending on the student’s grade and special education needs. Another measure in the House has a similar aim, and would take money from school districts and give it to students in the lowest-performing schools in the state to attend private schools.
Senate Education Committee Chair David Argall, R-Schuylkill, said in a statement that the Senate bill was “currently under consideration" by the committee. Argall’s statement added that “discussions are taking place about the future of the bill.”
A source familiar with budget negotiations told LehighValleyNews.com that what’s actually being discussed is different from both the House and Senate bills.
Shapiro told Fox News recently that he’s for school choice, but not taking money from public schools.
“I've also made crystal clear that I won’t take $1 out of our public schools in order to achieve that,” he said. “We've got to invest more in our children, not less.”
Unions and public school advocates argue vouchers will take money away from public schools. A Commonwealth court ruling in February determined that the state was unconstitutionally underfunding poorer school districts.
Democrats control the House by a one-seat majority. Republicans control the Senate. Sen. Jarrett Coleman, R-Lehigh, said he is thrilled that the governor is open to including school choice policies in the next fiscal year’s budget.
“Doing what’s best for children and making sure they can leave failing school districts and go to schools that best fit their needs I don’t think is a partisan issue,” he said. “I think it’s doing what’s best for children.”
Schweyer said he was leery about people using the phrase “failing schools.”
“Every school that is underachieving in terms of test scores is entirely reflective of the fact that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania disinvested in our schools for generations,” Schweyer said. “You know, whose fault it is. It's the Pennsylvania General Assembly's fault to address schools that are under-invested and perhaps underperforming as a whole. That’s our responsibility.”
Senate President Pro Tem Kim Ward has tweeted her support for including vouchers in the state budget.
"Building on the historic investments made in education during last year's budget, the Lifeline Scholarship program is an avenue to help position our students in Pennsylvania to graduate, obtain a skill and secure a job," she said in a tweet.
The Democratic-controlled House passed its $45 billion general fund budget along party lines earlier this month. The proposed spending plan invests an additional $1.7 billion in education funding, including $100 million more for basic education and $50 million more in special education funding over the governor's recommended levels. It would also resume funding for the Level Up program, which provides money to the 100 poorest districts in the commonwealth, adding about $225 million to Level Up. It also dedicates $250 million for school modernization.
Shapiro proposed spending about $1 billion on education this fiscal year — with $567 million in basic education funding. His recommended budget did not add new Level Up funding.
Coleman said he's hopeful that at least the Senate will pass its version of the budget by Friday.
Final negotiations to reconcile the three plans are ongoing.