A week ago, Pennsylvania was on the cusp of a once-in-a-generation change in education, achieved through bipartisanship and cooperation. Today, all of that is in ruins and the level of trust in Harrisburg is lower than ever.
Governor Josh Shapiro campaigned on support for school vouchers and reiterated that support after he won a smashing victory last November. He even went on Fox News to say so and reached across the aisle to Republicans in the state senate to arrive at a compromise budget that maintained spending on government-run schools while establishing a scholarship program for kids in the districts with failing schools.
That was a great bipartisan accomplishment of a goal favored by a majority of Republicans, a majority of independents, and even a majority of black and Hispanic Democrats. Even in Philadelphia, twice as many voters approved of charter schools than opposed them — and that was before the Covid lockdowns. There was reason to believe in hope for kids trapped in failing education monopolies.
But that would require Democrats to shake off the embrace of teachers unions and for the one group that opposes school vouchers — white progressives — to listen to the other parts of their party’s coalition. This, the Democrats — and especially House Majority Leader Matt Bradford — refused to do.
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Facing a budget deadline and knowing Shapiro did not want to preside over chaos, Bradford held firm on his refusal to countenance the vouchers that a majority of House and Senate members support. When Republicans do this, the media calls it “hostage-taking.” And it worked. Shapiro announced today that he would agree to use his line-item veto on the part of the budget that paid for the school vouchers program, allowing the rest to pass with his signature.
That sounds like a strategic, face-saving retreat for the governor, but it is not as simple as that. The budget the Senate passed contained loads of other provisions that the GOP-controlled chamber would not ordinarily have agreed to include.
Last week, Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward told the press, “This budget that we put together was put together with the governor as an agreement, as a whole package. If they pull out our priorities … you’re going to see a very slimmed-down, scaled-back budget, because there were things in this budget that we really didn’t want to do.”
Well, that is exactly what House Democrats did. Faced with a compromise budget, they told Shapiro to choose: pass only what the Dems want, or pass nothing at all. Shapiro blinked and the hostage-takers won.
Bradford and House Democrats showed that the way to win in politics is rigid adherence to party and partisanship.
“Knowing that the two chambers will not reach consensus at this time to enact PASS, and unwilling to hold up our entire budget process over this issue, I will line-item veto the full $100 million appropriation and it will not be part of this budget bill,” Shapiro said in a press release Wednesday afternoon.
Meanwhile, no Republican state senator has any reason to trust Shapiro again. They held out their hand in friendship, did the thing Americans always say we want — moderate bipartisan compromise — and had that hand slapped away by Bradford and House Dems with but a single-seat majority, with Shapiro’s acquiescence. Added to all the two-faced scheming that began the legislative session, and trust is in low supply in the state capital.
When other bills are negotiated in the fall and winter this year, we anticipate the press will fall back to form and place the blame on incalcitrant Republicans who are “allergic” to compromise. They should remember this moment before such finger-wagging.
Bradford and House Democrats showed that the way to win in politics is rigid adherence to party and partisanship. It’s the opposite of the sunny optimism they affected in January, but it’s accurate.
And if the entire 102-member Democratic House caucus stands by Bradford’s power play, they’ll show that they too put party over Pennsylvania’s neediest kids.
Trust, once lost, is not easy to rebuild. There were some in Harrisburg who were trying to do just that, but this double-cross makes it harder than ever before.
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