School Voucher Debate Stalls Budget

(June 30, 2023) As budget negotiations in the General Assembly continue there is one major issue that is stalling negotiations – school vouchers. On Thursday, June 29, one day before the state budget was due, the Senate passed the Lifeline Scholarship Program on a party-line vote, with all republicans and one democrat voting in favor of the legislation and all remaining democrats opposed. The legislation now moves to the House for approval. Democratic leaders in the House have stated that they are united in opposing the legislation and it will not pass in the House of Representatives.

If enacted, the Lifeline Scholarship Program will provide $10,000 per student, or up to $15,000 for students with special needs, to families who attend Pennsylvania schools in the bottom 15% based on reading and math scores. Families must make under 250% of the federal poverty level to be eligible – $75,000 for a family of four. The program would be funded at $100 million.

The Lifeline Scholarship Program has advanced further than other voucher attempts in past legislative sessions. This is due to the support that school choice has within the governor’s office. Newly confirmed Secretary of Education Mumin stated to the Senate Education Committee that Gov. Shapiro “favors adding choices for parents and education opportunities for students and funding lifeline scholarships as long as those choices do not impact school district funding.” This support is not shared within the education committee. Groups including statewide associations and unions are opposed because voucher programs typically do divert funding away from struggling school districts to school entities that are not held to the same academic and accountability standards as public schools.

This is also a concern for Allies for Children and why we are opposed to voucher programs. We believe in ensuring all public schools are adequately funded to provide equitable opportunities for all students. If funds are diverted from public schools, the students who reside within that school are once again short changed. Furthermore, if vouchers are enacted we need to be sure that there are policies in place to measure how the scholarship students are performing in their nonpublic school. Without the same accountability requirements, it will be difficult to judge students’ progress and if they are excelling in their new school.

The voucher debate has stalled budget negotiations and will likely push the final budget into July. Allies for Children will provide an overview of the budget once it is finalized. Earlier in June, the House approved a budget that provided significant increases for education and other children-focused programs, including the new BOOST program for out of school time programs, Basic Education Funding, career and technical education, and early intervention. Unfortunately, that budget was not well received in the Senate and the Senate allocations are shaping up to be lower than the House’s budget.

Jamie Baxter, Allies for Children Executive Director