September 21, 2022

Jerry Zahorchak: School voucher bill would move Pennsylvania in the wrong direction

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Public school supporters in Pennsylvania have been disappointed to discover that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro supports the Lifeline Scholarship voucher bill that mirrors many of the education savings account bills popular with the GOP across the country. This next piece has run here on the NPE blog before, but given the new context, it’s worth revisiting.

In a June op-ed, Jery Zahorchak explained why the Lifeline Scholarship plan is a bad one.

For one, it fails to address real needs in the state.

Imagine a school district with $4,000 less to spend per student than its wealthier neighbors with many students who lack supports to reach grade-level. How would you help?

Most people would guarantee that this school district had funds to hire enough teachers and aides to give students who are behind supports. Indeed, nearly two-thirds of Pennsylvania parents in a recent PSBA (Pennsylvania School Boards Association) poll agreed that struggling schools need more resources.

Legislative leaders are instead considering taking taxpayer money away from some of the state’s lowest funded schools and sending it private schools, no strings attached.

Pennsylvania’s system suffers from some serious inequity in spending between districts. Zahorchak correctly doubts that the private market will fix that inequity.

As with any voucher program, it’s important to remember who actually gets to choose:

Private schools often reject students that public schools rightfully must educate: students who are behind grade-level, have behavioral challenges, are learning English and more. There’s no guarantee to make private schools accommodate students with disabilities, unlike public schools where federal laws guarantee students with disabilities the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Private schools can reject students simply because they don’t “fit the culture” or can’t pay the entire cost of tuition. Because many of these students need services that cost more, there is an incentive to say no.

Any “school choice” provided by HB 2169 lies in the hands of admissions officers, not families.
And also like many ESA programs, this one offers no accountability for taxpayers:
Further, parents and taxpayers will never know whether or not HB 2169 actually improves academic results for students.

The bill does not require private schools to report any academic data. Students will not even be required to take the same state tests whose results place public schools on the list of “low-achieving schools.” Accountability for thee, but not for me.

The bill allows subsidizing private school tuition of wealthy families – no income limits. Under this bill, the richest family in Johnstown could send their children to private school from first grade to graduation and receive an annual $7,000 taxpayer check from the school district.

As he correctly points out

This is not a solution – it’s just our legislative leaders’ latest attempt to dodge their responsibility under the State Constitution, which guarantees a “thorough and efficient” system of public education.

How disappointing that the Democratic candidate has embraced a bill that offers no actual solutions for Pennsylvania’s public school system.

You can read the full op-ed here.


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