State Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) is firmly backing the notion of Lifeline Scholarships, a school-choice voucher plan that has seized the political conversation in Harrisburg after Gov. Josh Shapiro said last week he supports the idea.
Although Shapiro, also a Democrat, had given vague support to school choice issues in his gubernatorial campaign last year, his remarks this month sent shockwaves through Harrisburg and Pennsylvania’s political landscape, testing the longstanding alliance between Democrats and teacher’s unions, which reacted vehemently against Shapiro’s stance.
Williams’ support comes with the natural caveats any long-serving lawmaker would have: the bill’s language still must be negotiated, and he can’t say he’ll commit to voting for or against something when the finer details have yet to be crafted.
But in the general sense of what the Lifeline Scholarships are intended to do, Williams is politically aligned with Shapiro, and frames the issue in a moral sense of fairness.
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“I think that many of us in Pennsylvania are aware that there’s some areas, some districts in Pennsylvania — and I happen to be in one of those, Philadelphia County — that has for decades now had declining enrollments and declining academic results. And parents who don’t have the means to move, knowing what it means to pay for tuition, are trapped,” he told Broad + Liberty Tuesday.
“When you [as a student] are passed along without the ability to read or do mathematics, you’re inclined to be reduced to minimum wage jobs or make some really bad decisions unless you’re lucky,” Williams continued. “And I don’t feel that to be fair and I’ve never felt it to be fair.”
“My hope is that this new energy around the possibility of a scholarship is viewed as simply what it is — and that’s support for a population of people who don’t have the financial means to move their children to where others would move their children to a school that works and educates and is safe. And that’s all we’re trying to do,” he concluded.
A bill has already been introduced in the Republican-controlled senate. For families with students in low performing districts, the state would provide restricted accounts holding a portion of what the government already spends on the student, but the family could use that for private school tuition, tutoring, or other education-related expenses.
“The scholarship would offer $5,000 to students in full-day kindergarten through eighth grade and $10,000 for grades nine through twelve. Special education students would receive $15,000, no matter the grade level. The program also sets aside $2,500 for half-day kindergarteners,” a report from The Center Square noted.
The scholarships could be passed as separate legislation, or as a part of the upcoming budget which by law must be finalized by June 30, this coming Friday. Given the tight timeline, separate legislation would appear to be the more likely option, even though all avenues remain open.
Williams’ support for the scholarships is significant given his Philadelphia constituency, and also his two decades-plus tenure in the Pennsylvania Senate. But any legislation would seem poised to easily pass the senate, with or without Williams given the Republican support for the idea and the comfortable GOP majority there.
The larger question remains with the House, where Pennsylvania Democrats hold a narrow, one-vote majority of 102–101. Party solidarity would be tested, especially in a situation in which the Democratic governor has already faced serious political risk by expressing support for the policy.
A request for comment to House Speaker Joanna McClinton’s office was not immediately returned.
At least one House Democrat, Rep. Donna Bullock of Philadelphia, has at least expressed interest in the idea, but not total support just yet.
“We need to consider the educational options for black and brown families that can support both public schools and other options within the educational ecosystem, especially in Philadelphia,” Bullock said in the Inquirer.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the largest teachers union in the commonwealth, wasted no time in saying it was “completely opposed” to the scholarships after Shapiro’s affirmation.
“We are incredibly disappointed that Secretary Mumin has suggested that Gov. Shapiro could be the first governor in Pennsylvania’s history to sign a school voucher bill,” said Rich Askey, President of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, as quoted in the Inquirer.
Education Voters of PA, usually described as a pro-public-education advocacy group, also blasted the scholarships, especially as they relate to other scholarship opportunities already available through EITC/OSTC vouchers. Those vouchers are legal mechanisms in which a company can donate money to K-12 scholarships and deduct most of the donation from the company’s tax liability.
“Nothing would prevent affluent ‘Lifeline Scholarship’ recipients from double dipping into the EITC/OSTC voucher pot to get BIG TIME MONEY to pay their kids’ tuition bills,” the group said on its website (emphasis original). Education Voters of PA is a sponsored project of the Keystone Research Center, a left-of-center public policy think tank.
When you [as a student] are passed along without the ability to read or do mathematics, you’re inclined to be reduced to minimum wage jobs or make some really bad decisions unless you’re lucky.
Wiiliams said he thought the existing EITC/OSTC voucher plans had flaws, but hopes the lessons learned will be incorporated into any new legislation.
“EITC/OSTC have turned into programs that are not significantly directed at modest income people. You need to guarantee that this is of modest income people, whether it’s rural or urban. There are people who are trapped in those schools that are not performing and they are of modest income. That should be the priority of this bill. It has to be the priority of this bill,” Williams said.
Williams also said critics of the scholarships are creating distractions when they say the idea undercuts the entire notion of public education, or that those who might support the scholarships idea are not aligned with public education.
“That’s absolutely wrong,” Williams said, “especially for those of us who have voted for tax increases for public education and voted for budgets, especially in the last administration that creates historic increases in public education. Unfortunately, those historic increases have not translated to safe schools, academically challenging schools, and different cultures within those schools.”
The debate also falls against the backdrop of the enormous February ruling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in which it said the current method of funding the commonwealth’s elementary education system violated the state constitution. In essence, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said the disparities between wealthy and poorer districts was so wide that students in poorer districts “are being deprived of equal protection of law.”
Generally speaking, Democrats have hoped this might lead to a statewide restructuring of using property taxes to fund local school districts. Republicans, however, think that a voucher method in which the underprivileged family gets its share of education funding and can use that money to find education offerings outside of their school district must naturally be equitable.
Critics have also argued that Lifeline Scholarships would siphon money away from public schools — something Republican supporters say is not true.
“Despite what opponents claim, Lifeline Scholarships will not take money away from our public schools,” wrote Representatives Martina White and Clint Owlett, both Republicans. “No public school money will be used to fund Lifeline Scholarships. The program will be funded entirely by a separate source of state revenue.”
Williams was also adamant that just because a school or district might be underperforming, it does not necessarily mean teachers have failed.
“I don’t blame a teacher who’s trying their best, but they may be in some circumstances that are beyond their control and children shouldn’t be sacrificed because of that,” he said.
But for Williams, keeping the status quo isn’t an option.
“We have done many other types of scholarships in this country for veterans, for athletes, for athletic programs, and they have helped that population of folks gain some traction in the economy and that’s what I hope this does.”
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports