Before this year’s elections, Pennsylvania state senators will have the opportunity to return taxpayer dollars to parents and students victimized by perpetually failing public schools.

On June 21, the Senate Education Committee voted 7-4 along party lines to advance legislation that would provide students in the bottom 15% of the commonwealth’s lowest performing public schools with almost $7,000 in scholarship funds. 

Not a single Democrat voted to move the Lifeline Scholarship proposal out of committee so the full Senate would have the opportunity to discuss, debate, and vote on legislation that would enable parents and students to receive a portion of their tax dollars back in the form of Education Opportunity Accounts. 

Rep. Clint Owlett, a Republican representing parts of Tioga, Bradford, and Potter counties, is the lead sponsor of the legislation, which would create restricted-use accounts funded with state tax dollars, and administered by the state treasurer, similar in form to existing 529 programs. The bill passed the full House in a 104-98 vote this past April. 

Participating students looking to exit their public schools would be able to spend their scholarship funds to cover the cost of tuition, fees, uniforms, textbooks, computer technology, and other instructional material for an alternative school of their choice. 

“We have many outstanding schools in our commonwealth, but we cannot ignore those that are failing,” Owlett said in a press release shortly after his bill passed the House. “More importantly, we cannot ignore the students who are stuck in those schools with no other options. They don’t have time to wait for their schools to get better. They need our help now.”

So, who exactly qualifies?

The state Department of Education defines low-performing public schools as those in the lowest fifteen percent of the elementary or secondary schools designated. The figure is based on combined math and reading scores from the state administered achievement tests. Roughly 252,053 students live in areas with these low performing schools, according to state figures.

There’s no denying that these districts have failed to deliver. Standardized testing results from 2021 show that on average, only 4.1 percent of students in low-achieving schools scored proficient or above in elementary math and 18.2 percent at or above proficient in elementary language arts. 

Moreover, almost 80 low-achieving schools had zero students test at a rate that was proficient or above in elementary math, and 54 schools had zero students test proficient or above in high school literature. Those are dismal numbers. 

Given these hard realities, what exactly are the arguments against providing these students in failing school districts with a “lifeline” in the form of scholarships?

Rep. Lindsey Williams, the ranking Democratic member of the committee, described the scholarship program as a “voucher” during the June 21 hearing and read a list of questions to her colleagues. Her full remarks are available here. Williams claims that voucher programs “present ample opportunities for fraud and abuse.” In her remarks, Williams also said the lifeline proposal “takes all state revenues provided to all school districts and subtracts state transportation subsidies” that would otherwise provide for property tax relief and help pay for the state’s portion of pension costs.  

The lifeline proposal would provide each participating child with an amount equal to the average state funding per student minus the transportation funding. For the 2020-2021 school year, this came out to about $6,800 per student. Those students who would receive the scholarships would still qualify for transportation by their resident school district. Contrary to what Williams told her senate colleagues, the lifeline proposal is a winner for taxpayers and public schools. 

For starters, a $6,800 scholarship is significantly less expensive than the average per-pupil spending at public schools, which is now close to $20,000. Moreover, there are multiple studies that show school choice initiatives save taxpayer dollars. For example, EdChoice, a nonprofit that favors K-12 reforms, found that 25 out of 28 empirical studies demonstrate that school choice programs yield taxpayer savings. That’s not all: EdChoice also found that 31 out of 33 empirical studies demonstrate that school choice programs improve the academic performance of former public school students. 

But don’t tell any of this to the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest and most politically potent public employee union. In a press release, the 180,000-member union makes the argument that the Lifeline bill “would siphon millions of dollars from public schools to pay for private school tuition and other expenses.” Rick Askey, the PSEA president, sees “nothing less than a full attack on public education.” In the release, Askey complains that scholarships would pull $144 million from those school districts “most in need of state resources and give it to parents to spend on private school tuition, fees, uniforms, tutoring, computers, or all kinds of other educational expenses.” 

But does spending equal achievement? If so, then how does Askey explain academic failure in districts that are already receiving buckets of taxpayer money? 

In an interview, Nathan Benefield, senior vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, explains why the union’s fixation with dollar signs misses the point. 

“Lifeline Scholarships fund students in failing school districts with a modest partition of per pupil education spending — with almost two-thirds staying within the school district for a student they no longer educate,” he said. “These scholarships save taxpayers millions of dollars while giving students educational freedom.” 

Benefield continues:

“The focus needs to be on students, not bureaucratic institutions. For decades, we’ve consistently increased state funding for public schools, and Pennsylvania public schools now spend nearly $20,000 per student, eighth highest in the nation. Yet in the bottom 15 percent of low performing schools, on average, only 22 percent of students scored at or above proficient in high school algebra and only 4.5 percent in high school literature. That’s not accountability. Lifeline Scholarships provide these students the opportunity for a better future.” 

“PSEA executives are more concerned about money and power than helping kids. They know Lifeline Scholarships will finally put parents—not government union executives—in charge of their students’ education.” 

But politically the PSEA packs a wallop. Campaign finance records show the union’s political action committee has spent almost $20 million since 2007 and almost $700,000 this year alone. If anything, these figures understate the union’s influence. The PSEA is an affiliate of the National Education Association, which also works to preserve the status quo in Pennsylvania. The NEA Fund for Children and Public Education has spent $180,000 in the state since 2007.

Unfortunately, this means a substantial percentage of elected officials are funded by unions that are opposed to educational freedom. The overwhelming majority of this funding goes to Democrats, which helps to explain why the June 21 vote to move the Lifeline Scholarship bill out of committee fell along party lines. Going forward, those Democrats should know that their union benefactors are not representative of their own constituency. In fact, a 2022 poll revealed overwhelming, bipartisan support for educational choice, with 83% of Republicans and 76% of Democrats support for giving families scholarships to use for their children’s education expenses. Put simply, this comes down to a battle between parents and well-funded special interests. Williams, the ranking Democrat on the senate education committee, makes it clear where she stands. Evidentially, she doesn’t have much faith in parents. 

During the June 21 hearing, she asked:

“What provisions are in this bill that would allow the General Assembly to evaluate objectively whether or not the program is making a positive impact on student achievement and that the program is a valuable use of taxpayer resources? As far as I can tell the only so-called accountability provision is a parents’ survey.”

But how accountable are the taxpayer funded school administrators who failed to deliver any meaningful returns on the investments taxpayers continue to make into their school districts?

If the Senate is audacious enough to press ahead with a vote in the full chamber, there will be no escaping that line of questioning.

Kevin Mooney (@KevinMooneyDC) is an investigative reporter for the Commonwealth Foundation. He writes for several national publications.

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