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What Would an Equitable Voucher System Look Like?

By Op-Ed

Pennsylvania’s Republican legislators support a voucher program they say is meant to help a small number of students who attend schools they claim are failing. (They don’t mention that those schools are also severely underfunded.) However, these legislators and their supporters, including billionaires Betsy DeVos and Jeffrey Yass, have made no secret that their ultimate goal is to replace our public schools with a system of private schools financed by vouchers.

It is doubtful that such a plan could meet the requirements of the Pennsylvania Constitution. When the education clause was added to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1873, it specifically required funding of “public schools.” And, changing the words to “public education” in the constitutional revision of 1967 does not alter the import of the phrase.

Could a voucher plan be designed to meet the two goals for public education held by the framers of the Pennsylvania Constitution? The first was to provide an equal opportunity for all students to make the best use of their talents and abilities, not just to benefit themselves but to benefit our economy and democracy. The second was to ensure that every student is prepared to take part in our representative government, beginning with a firm understanding of our country’s ideals.

What would a voucher system crafted to attain these goals look like?

First, all private schools that accept vouchers would be required to teach the basics of American political institutions and ideals and our ideals of freedom and democracy for all.

Second, private schools would have to be prohibited from discriminating against students based on political ideology, income, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and disability status.

Third,  any voucher system would need to ensure that every child has an equal opportunity to get a comprehensive education, even though some families have a greater financial ability to pay tuition than others. We also know that children growing up in poverty, and those who are English-language learners, need more resources to get an equal education. This would require some combination of the following policies:

·           A sliding scale that provides a larger voucher for parents with lower incomes and English-language learners.

·           Given spending at the best public schools in the state exceeds $25,000 per student and tuition at the best private schools in the state often exceeds $40,000, voucher amounts would have to be substantially higher than found in any current legislation to make those schools broadly accessible.

·           A cap on private school tuition or a requirement that any private school that accepts vouchers take them as full payment for students who come from families below a certain income threshold.

Fourth, to ensure that schools meet these requirements—and to stop the graft, fraud, and waste that afflict voucher-funded private schools wherever the system has been implemented—private schools would be required to file extensive reports on their practices and the quality of the education they provide.

And, fifth, there would have to be guarantees that voucher levels and the funding for them would increase with inflation in education costs. Failing to do that would ensure that access to the best and most expensive schools in the Commonwealth would increasingly be limited to families with higher incomes.

None of these provisions are in the voucher proposals Republicans put forward this year. Their current plan gives a voucher of fixed amount to all students that is far below the cost of the best schools, and it only caps the income of the families eligible to receive vouchers at Governor Shapiro’s insistence.

It’s also clear that many of the elite and religious private schools would reject rules and regulations designed to create an equitable education system. Almost none are willing to open their doors to all. Few of them welcome disabled students. And, many insist on teaching ideas that conflict with well-established science, such as creationism, or that are inimical to the ideals of freedom and democracy.

While the Republicans’ current voucher plan is small, the experiences of other states such as Arizona, show us that once small voucher programs are instituted, state funding will increasingly be diverted to vouchers that help only a small number of kids while draining public schools of funding.

The Republicans’ failure to put forward a voucher plan with the features described above, along with their unwillingness to fund the current education system at higher levels, calls into question their commitment to meet the goals for public education set by our constitution: an adequate and equitable education for all.

Instead, we should assume that the real goals of Republican legislators and their billionaire supporters in Pennsylvania and elsewhere are shown not just in their manifestos but in the policies they support. Their aim appears to be to destroy our public schools, reduce taxes on the rich, and give those with high incomes vouchers to send their kids to high-quality private schools while everyone else’s children get a second-rate education. That is a path to a permanent economic and political elite—not the political and economic democracy sought by the framers of our state’s constitution.

Update on Pennsylvania Budget Negotiations

By Blog Post

With $13 billion in accumulated surplus and a budget from the governor that proposed modest additions to state spending on policies that have broad support, one would expect that making a budget deal would be easy.

Yet the budget deadline came and went.

House Democrats passed a budget four weeks ago with more funding for a number of programs, including education, where they added to basic education funding and special education funding, and added the popular Level Up program back into the budget. They then passed a minimum wage bill that was not perfect but would put Pennsylvania on a path to $15. Governor Shapiro embraced both plans.

Senate Republicans passed a profoundly flawed budget, at the last minute, that rejected most of the House plan. Its worst element, however, was the inclusion of a $100 million down payment on a radical plan, sponsored by extremist billionaires like Betsy Devos and Jeffrey Yass, to destroy our public school system. Then they left town.

The House Democrats had already made clear that there will be no voucher program adopted this year or for as long as they are in the House majority. (And given that their stance on all the critical issues is totally aligned with the majority in public polls, they may well be in the majority for a long time.)

So, we’re back to square one.

How did we get here?

First, negotiations started later than usual. There were new political circumstances: a Democratic House majority that did not really take power until the special elections in March, a new governor, and new leadership in the Senate. The new people, with power in their hands, had to take time to build relationships, internally and externally, and learn the ropes of the budget process.

Second, in an extraordinary display of political chutzpah, having lost the education funding case in court, the Republicans tried to twist the decision—which calls for a new, fair system of funding public schools—into a mandate to radically restructure our education system by privatizing schools.

Third, the Republicans not only misread the opinion of the courts but may have misread Governor Shapiro as well. The governor signaled his willingness to support a modest Lifeline scholarship program during his campaign and has continued to do so ever since. However, his support was contingent on funding public schools fully and fairly. When public schools are so radically underfunded, any allotment of money for vouchers takes away critical funds from these schools. And the Senate Republican budget does far less than the House Democratic budget. While the Governor has not been as clear as we’d like, we hope his unwillingness to embrace the Senate budget indicates that he’s having second thoughts about the school voucher plan. As he thinks about his political future, the Governor must be concerned that the endorsement of the Senate plan by anti-government extremists Betsy Devos and Grover Norquist reveals that Republicans see Lifeline scholarships not as a supplement to public schools, but as a foot in the door for a radical restructuring of education funding in Pennsylvania.

Fourth, it appears that many Republicans don’t understand that they lost the last election: in fact, their gubernatorial candidate lost in a landslide. They lost the House majority for the first time in over a decade. While Senate Republicans did not lose seats—mostly because that chamber remains more gerrymandered than the House—the political landscape has shifted. But Republican expectations have not shifted with them.

The Republicans can legitimately claim a role in setting funding levels in the budget. But there seems to be a faction among Senate Republicans that is taking its cues from national Republicans, who think they can hold hostage any necessary government action—whether it is a state budget or an agreement to avoid default—until they get their way, no matter how radical their proposals are. This is, sadly, a product of the belief among Republican extremists that theirs is the only legitimate governing party. That, however, is not the view of most Pennsylvanians. Democrats here in Pennsylvania are not going to embrace extremist, radical ideas in the budget process any more than President Biden allowed it in Washington.

And fifth, Senate Republicans apparently believe that any delay in the budget will be blamed on Governor Shapiro. They fail to understand that, even before his effective leadership in managing the recent I-95 repair, the governor is widely admired and is in the best possible position to wait for them to accept political reality. And the Governor surely understands that the radical intent of the Lifeline program is deeply unpopular with Democrats, not just in Pennsylvania but around the country.

The House Democrats have accepted political reality. They have enacted many of their proposals (which are, frankly, progressive) but have done so in ways that have not pushed the envelope; and on many issues, they have won Republican support. When the Senate Republicans recognize political reality as well, they will be able to strike a budget deal with the House Democrats and Governor Shapiro.