TO: The Honorable Josh Shapiro, Governor
The Honorable Dr. Khalid Mumin, Acting Secretary of Education
The Honorable Members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly
FROM: American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 13
American Federation of Teachers (AFT) - Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA)
Service Employees International Union State Council (SEIU)
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 32BJ
United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), Local 1776
Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council
DATE: June 22, 2023
SUBJECT: School voucher proposals (i.e., “Lifeline Scholarships”)
On behalf of our more than one million members, PSEA, AFT-Pennsylvania, AFL-CIO, AFSCME, SEIU, SEIU 32BJ, UFCW 1776, and the Pennsylvania Building and Construction Trades Council
want to convey our deep concern and complete opposition to the idea of implementing any school voucher program in Pennsylvania, whether it is called “lifeline scholarships” or anything else.
We need to be very clear.
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. Pennsylvania has a moral and constitutional responsibility to fund its existing system of public education. Particularly in the wake of a Commonwealth Court decision that found that our state’s public education funding system is unconstitutional, it is unacceptable to entertain any discussion about tuition voucher schemes that divert funding from our public school students.
Making the investments Pennsylvania’s students need to ensure that our public school funding system meets our constitution’s requirements should be policymakers’ only focus for the FY 2023-24 state budget.
It is truly distressing that the push for this new tuition voucher program comes only a few months after the Commonwealth Court ruled that Pennsylvania’s school funding system was found to be unconstitutional and the court determined that hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania students attending low-wealth districts are being deprived of equal protection of the law.
The decision directs that all students should have “access to a comprehensive, effective, and contemporary system of public education.” (Op. 776-77)
Consideration of a tuition voucher program would flagrantly disregard the direction of the Commonwealth Court in William Penn School District et al. v. Pa. Department of Education et al. The decision repeatedly made it clear that policymakers’ obligation is to fix Pennsylvania’s system of funding public education. Tuition vouchers, as a remedy, were neither mentioned nor ordered. None of the budgets publicly proposed in this budget cycle put to rest policymakers’ obligation under Judge Jubelirer’s order.
Therefore, it is clearly irresponsible to appropriate state funds for tuition vouchers that benefit private and religious schools when the commonwealth hasn’t met its most basic duty to students who attend our public schools – the same public schools that the Commonwealth Court has determined are unconstitutionally underfunded.
Further, we would note that the proposed tuition voucher program under Senate Bill 795 would create a costly and duplicative new government program, while Pennsylvania continues to operate the EITC and OSTC programs. These programs provide tax credits to businesses that contribute money for scholarships to private and religious schools.
The tuition voucher program under Senate Bill 795 would direct taxpayer dollars to the same students in the same low-achieving schools identified in the OSTC program. However, Senate Bill 795 goes a step further since there are no income limitations for families to participate. That means that even wealthy Pennsylvanians could access these taxpayer funds to pay for their children’s private or religious school educations.
In a further insult to taxpayers, Senate Bill 795 only requires an eligible student to live in the attendance boundaries of a low-achieving school “upon their initial application.” This means that a student and their family could move into a better performing school district or attendance area and still qualify for a voucher in future years. Not only could this provision incentivize fraud, but it is also in direct contradiction to proponents’ arguments that they want to help students escape low-achieving schools.
Tuition voucher programs fail students with disabilities. Students with disabilities attending a public school are entitled to numerous rights and protections under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). However, the IDEA does not apply to nonpublic schools, and the bill reiterates that participating nonpublic schools would be considered “autonomous.” This effectively means the state could not ensure voucher recipients have services that comply with IDEA or state regulations even though their education would be supported with state resources.
Finally, we would note that tuition voucher programs generally and Senate Bill 795 in particular lack academic accountability. Senate Bill 795 does not contain one element of academic accountability for private or religious schools even though it proposes to use academic accountability metrics for school districts (i.e., standardized test scores) to identify low-performing schools for the purpose of determining students’ eligibility for tuition vouchers.
This is the absolute height of hypocrisy. Every year, public school students face weeks of standardized testing all in the name of accountability for taxpayers’ investments. Academic accountability is important to all students, families, and communities. Consciously exempting private and religious schools that receive taxpayer funds through a tuition voucher program does a disservice to everyone.
This tuition voucher exercise, timed conveniently in the final days of FY 2023-24 budget deliberations, is keeping policymakers from addressing actual problems like our unconstitutional public school funding system and the school staff shortage crisis. It would be a shame if the months of work on bipartisan initiatives to address real problems in public schools were lost because of ideological efforts to advance the privatization of our education system.
It is irresponsible to vote for any tuition voucher program or include a tuition voucher program in any state budget agreement. We will continue to stay in touch with you as budget negotiations continue. Thank you for your consideration of our comments.