My name is Marc Stier. I’m the executive director of the Pennsylvania Policy Center.
I’m here today with my fellow advocates for education—including the leaders of unions of teachers, who have dedicated their lives to our children—to speak against the Lifeline scholarship program put forward by Senate Republicans.
The advocates for that program say that it will not take money from our public schools. This argument is thoroughly disingenuous. While money for the program comes from the General Fund and not from individual school districts, Republicans keep reminding us that General Fund revenues are not unlimited. The accumulated surplus that is supporting the operating budget this year—and is projected to support it for the next five years—will eventually run out. Any funding that goes to the Lifeline scholarship program will come from revenues that are needed to meet our constitutional and moral responsibility to provide fair and full funding of our public schools and that also help to keep local property taxes from rising too fast.
Republicans who oppose adding more funding for public schools keep warning us about a future state spending crunch. Yet when it comes to their priorities—such as Lifeline scholarships and corporate tax cuts—as well as the huge $340-million subsidy for private schools in the EITC and OSTC program that already exist—they forget those warnings. And, not to anyone’s surprise, their priorities mainly benefit the richest Pennsylvanians. That’s obviously true for corporate tax cuts. But it’s also true for the EITC and OSTC programs and vouchers as well, for the simple reason that in addition to the vouchers individual parents will have to spend their own funds to afford the best private schools in the state.
The evidence we have from other states that have enacted proposals like Lifeline scholarships shows they have failed in multiple ways. The comprehensive and recent analysis of voucher programs in a number of US cities and states shows they do not significantly improve student achievement. Moreover, this research demonstrates that improvement in education in the states that have enacted vouchers came from accountability programs that were adopted for all schools, both public and private. Yet private and charter school accountability has long been missing in Pennsylvania and is nowhere to be found in the Lifeline scholarship legislation.
The lack of accountability in voucher programs has led to schools that not only do not provide a superior education but too often discriminate based on race, religion, and disability status. They fail to teach the basics of civic education. And they often teach sectarian ideas contrary to our Constitution. And voucher-funded schools with little or no accountability have a long history of malfeasance, misspending of state funds, and outright corruption. This has been found in voucher programs enacted in Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Washington, DC.
I understand the appeal of helping students afford a private school they can attend for whom the public schools do not work. And I could support a limited program along those lines. But the advocates for this program intend much more. Their expressed goal is to replace public schools with private ones. Our recent poll shows that 57% of Pennsylvania voters overwhelmingly oppose this idea. And it would violate the constitutional mandate to provide a system of thorough and efficient public education.
The people of Pennsylvania support public schools for very good reasons. They know that public schools bring diverse groups of students together so they can learn to live and work together. They know that public schools try to bring all our kids, no matter what they look like or how much they have, to the level that allows them to thrive no matter what further education they get or work they do. And they know that public schools teach the civic ideals that most of us cherish. They have been doing that in Pennsylvania since Thaddeus Stevens, the greatest Republican legislator in our history and a great educator before he became the great liberator, led the General Assembly to create public schools in 1834. We need to rededicate ourselves to Stevens’s firm belief that a great public education will give every child in our state an equal opportunity—not just to make the best of their own lives but to contribute mightily to the lives of their fellow Pennsylvanians.