(The Center Square) — An unorthodox coalition wants Gov. Josh Shapiro to put money behind the support he expressed for Pennsylvania school choice on the campaign trail last year.

Advocates said Friday that letting children move to better schools should transcend partisan lines and is crucial for their futures.

“Kids trapped in failing and unsafe schools can’t afford to wait while their future is at risk,” said Erik Telford, an advisor to the One Way Out initiative and senior vice president of public affairs at the Commonwealth Foundation. “It’s time for lawmakers to deliver on this solution endorsed by Governor Shapiro.”

The newly formed One Way Out Initiative is backed by several groups of various political hues: Commonwealth Action, Excellent Schools PA, the Latino Action Group, the Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools, Independence Mission Schools, the Foundation for Jewish Day Schools of Greater Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania Education Partnership.

One Way Out promotes Lifeline Scholarships as a way to get kids away from low-performing and dangerous schools and give them “an opportunity for a brighter future.” 

Lifeline Scholarships would allow students to leave a low-performing school and transfer to a public or private school. The House of Representatives passed a bill during the last session to create the scholarships, but it didn’t clear the upper chamber.

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The program would funnel one-third of per-student funding into a spending account that would go to the student (about $7,000) to cover tuition and other expenses at a private school, leaving behind two-thirds for the school district.

One Way Out has support from some influential names, like native Philadelphian Troy Carter, the founder of music technology company Venice Music. Carter rose to prominence as the manager of Lady Gaga and John Legend, among others, and was a longtime advisor to Spotify.

Carter visited Little Flower Catholic High School in Philadelphia’s Hunting Park neighborhood on Friday as part of One Way Out to highlight the all-girls school as the type of school all kids should be able to attend. The school boasts of being one of the most diverse in Philadelphia and has a 90 percent college acceptance rate for its graduates.

“To me, this is a commonsense issue,” Carter said. “There’s no reason why someone shouldn’t be able to come to Little Flower if they want … the issue shouldn’t be contentious.”

Giving more students a better and safer education, he argued, helps young people avoid a life of crime. Carter said he is agnostic on what form education takes, be it a public school, charter school, or private school — his concern is focused on outcomes.

“I’m all for public education if it’s a great public education, but … I’ve had the ability to choose,” Carter said. “Parents shouldn’t have to be handicapped by way of where they live.” 

Little Flower President Kristie Dugan downplayed any perceived public-private school rivalry and focused on the well-being of students.

“I do believe that, if you give a child the basic necessities, they will flourish,” she said. “Education — a safe education — is one of those necessities … It’s not about money. It’s about the future of the state, the city.”

You’re not affecting the politicians in their big office — you’re affecting children and hard-working families who want this, who need this.

Students have taken an interest in the topic as well.

“People make this a political issue, a party issue, but it’s about the kids,” senior Jaslin Vasquez-Gonzalez said. “It’s about the kids who are coming to the schools that have very low reading proficiency levels, they’re not learning right — they’re not being given a chance to excel because they’re not getting educated properly.”

She urged leaders to reconsider opposing initiatives like the scholarship program.

“My one message to politicians would be: be better, really think about who you’re affecting,” Vasquez-Gonzalez said. “You’re not affecting the politicians in their big office — you’re affecting children and hard-working families who want this, who need this.”

Republican-led states in recent years have expanded school choice, though opposition in Democratic-led states has limited reform, as has the hesitancy of some rural Republican legislators.

To turn that opposition into support, One Way Out is running an ad campaign until the June 30 budget deadline to gin up support for Lifeline Scholarships.

“A lot of Democrats have dropped the ball on this,” Carter said.

Forcing change could mean, as he sees it, a changing of the guard.

“You have to vote these people out,” Carter said. “We need to have people in these seats who really care about the kids.”

Anthony Hennen is a reporter for The Center Square. Previously, he worked for Philadelphia Weekly and the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. He is managing editor of Expatalachians, a journalism project focused on the Appalachian region.

This article was republished with permission from The Center Square.

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