In 2023, “school choice” is a unicorn among political issues, a thing rarely seen — if ever.

The goal of school choice legislation is to put parents in charge of their child’s K-12 education. Supporters want education spending to “follow the child” to a school that parents choose, rather than one that children are compelled to attend just because of their zip code. School choice can be education tax credits, vouchers, or Lifeline Scholarships that have been at the center of the Pennsylvania state budget fight.

Lifeline is a proposal for $100 million to be put in a fund that could be accessed by parents whose kids attend the worst schools in Pennsylvania (as determined by Department of Education rankings). Parents would apply for scholarship money to send their children to a better K-12 school. Supporters call Lifeline Scholarships a “rescue plan” because they would allow kids trapped in these failing schools to be rescued to attend a better school — one that the child’s parents have faith in.

READ MORE — Guy Ciarrocchi: Moms know best — cyber schools offer safety and restore self-esteem

Lifeline Scholarships are a political unicorn for a few reasons. First, most supporters in the legislature represent communities whose schools are not among the worst in the state. (They tend to be Republicans wanting to help children in overwhelmingly Democratic communities.) Second, many of the legislative opponents represent suburban communities whose schools are among the best in our state — they would be entirely unaffected by Lifeline Scholarships. Third, the opposition boils down to this: It will work — all parents want to choose a good school for their kids.

Opponents throw out a litany of arguments. But, at their core, they are all based on the “fear” that thousands of parents will actually seek out these scholarships, and use the scholarships at non-public schools.

They fear that many parents — especially in Philadelphia — will use Lifeline Scholarships to send their child to a parochial or other religious school. This, they argue, violates the “separation of church and state.” Wrong. The U.S. Supreme Court has twice upheld vouchers/scholarships, protecting parents’ rights to choose their child’s school, including religious schools, both in Carson v. Makin and in Zelma v. Simmons-Harris.

Moreover, common sense tells us taxpayer dollars are often used at religious institutions that serve the common good. Government-backed student loans and grants are used at religious colleges, even seminaries. And, the entire continuum of social services has religious providers from cradle to grave: hospitals, adoption services, juvenile justice services, rehabilitation facilities, nursing homes, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens.

And remember, not one dollar of Lifeline goes to any school unless a parent selects it for his/her child. So, the teachers union’s fear that millions of dollars will suddenly go to parochial schools in Philadelphia (or Pittsburgh, Reading, etc.) must be because they know where many of their colleagues send their own kids.

Another argument opposing Lifeline Scholarships — that, again, assumes parents want choices and will actually move their kids out of failing public schools — is the often repeated “wailing” that if parents use Lifeline, public schools will “lose money.”

As school choice advocates have been pointing out and repeating for years, money spent on education belongs to taxpayers, not any school district or school. So, a child transferring from school A to school B hasn’t “taken” money from school A. Rather, his parents have selected a new school where the money ought to go.

It’s time for people of good will to recognize the academic, economic and even moral cause of supporting Lifeline Scholarships.

But Pennsylvania’s draft budget does even more, guaranteeing that Lifeline Scholarships won’t “take money from public schools.” The budget passed by both the Senate and House actually increases public education by $714 million, the largest increase in state spending (a year after the previous largest increase).

In fact, if Lifeline Scholarships work — meaning thousands of children currently trapped in failing public schools get “rescued” and go to another school — public schools will actually have more money per student to educate the remaining children, and better teacher-to-student ratios.

School choice has been an idea for decades. Pennsylvania’s Lifeline Scholarships would bring this rescue plan to thousands of students. That’s something we should all support.

As you listen to the opponents, a few things should be obvious. The opponents have a financial and personal interest in keeping children trapped in their existing schools — that increases their budgets and political power.

And, not one of them suggests low-income parents don’t want the ability most of us are blessed to have. Most parents have school choice — they pay for private schools or they move where better schools are. School choice legislation just brings choice to those who can’t move or pay tuition.

The opponents don’t fight against school choice by alleging it won’t work. They know it will work — and that’s their fear. More and more parents will want choice. Competition increases. And the unions, the school boards, and the education “swamp” loses its stranglehold on poor children.

It’s time for people of good will to recognize the academic, economic and even moral cause of supporting Lifeline Scholarships. Trust me: it will change lives. If you don’t trust me that it will work, then trust the opponents. They’re making the strongest case for Lifeline Scholarships — by telling you how many parents want it, and how many children will leave and be rescued.

Guy Ciarrocchi is a Fellow with the Commonwealth Foundation. He writes for Broad + Liberty and RealClear Pennsylvania. Follow him @GuyCiarrocchi.  

11 thoughts on “Guy Ciarrocchi: Lifeline Scholarship opponents fear it will work”

  1. So what about the kids still at the worst schools in the state? The kids who got the scholarships are gone, and the kids who didn’t are still at the school – do we care at all about them? These scholarships will be great for the kids that get them, but they don’t fix the problem, which will still exist for many kids.

    1. Theoretically, the improvement by more flexible educational entities will drive change in traditional. The fact the traditional schools get to keep some money per student at charters means more money per student and smaller class sizes.

      The kids should do better- unless they continue to spin a broken wheel…

  2. I hear that. Another question: let’s say 2000, 3000 kids in Philly get these scholarships – are there actually enough slots at other schools for them? In rural districts that perform poorly, are there enough other, better schools within say 45 minutes? How does the transport work? If the scholarship kids do poorly on their new setting, do they continue to keep the scholarship? How long of a window would you give for their performance to improve? I haven’t seen a lot of logistics here and it’s an awful lot of money.

  3. Can we stop the Democrats WAR NOW IN CHILDREN? Shapiro used the voucher program to get re-elected. But caved to the Teaches Union. So they got what they elected Shapiro “THE LEADER ON THE WAR ON CHILDREN

  4. “Opponents throw out a litany of arguments. But, at their core, they are all based on the ‘fear’ that thousands of parents will actually seek out these scholarships, and use the scholarships at non-public schools.” Yes, they will and deservedly so. We don’t have to look at Philadelphia, Guy. Just up Route 30 there’s Coatesville, my hometown, where by 2025 it is projected that more school age kids in the district will be attending private, charter, or religious schools than attending the public schools. As Republican Rep. Steve Mentzer of Manheim Township said giving parents in failing school districts the opportunity to send their children to private schools had potential to “change the life of thousands of children in Pennsylvania” (White, J. LNP, July 7, 2023). Total funding for the voucher program would have been $100 million. However, not a dime of that money would have come from school district budgets. The program would be funded by the state treasury. Students at public schools in the bottom 15% of test score achievement would have benefitted (Aiken, M. Daily Local News, July 12, 2023).

    1. So in theory then, CASD would also start to improve in 2025 because student teacher ratio will go down and spending per pupil would go up according to proponents of this plan. Will it? I don’t know and no one else does either, but there’s some other factors to consider, such as the hard fact that all the least motivated students with low parent engagement will all likely still be there without the higher achievers to balance them out, so from a data standpoint like using PSSA scores, CASD might not look any better. But I would also argue that those numbers don’t tell the whole story

  5. The argument against vouchers and charters (including cyber-charters) is that they take resources away from public schools, which I believe they ultimately do. The simple fact is that public schools have to take everyone, where voucher recipients, religious schools and charter schools tend to be pretty selective in their enrollments. This leaves the public schools responsible for all special needs students, the poorest students from the poorest districts and students of parents that just don’t care. Talk about an un-level playing field! So to me, the solution is simple – if you’re a school that’s going to accept public funds, you’ve got to follow the same rules as public schools and take everyone, regardless of need, income or family status. Let’s see how excited some of these schools will be to take vouchers if they have to play by the same rules.

    1. Hello Michael, I appreciate comments and tend to either allow them to stand on their own, or reply privately if I think that a good offline dialogue would be productive. And, at times, comments are inaccurate or need to be publicly addressed. And, you “win.” First, on the “have to take everyone argument.” Charter schools have to take everyone: it’s the law. When “too many” apply (because the charter-authorizing district artificially caps enrollment to limit competition), a lottery is held. Parochial and many religious schools accept almost everyone—fyi, most students in most Catholic schools in Philly are majority non-Catholic. If what you mean is that they can suspend or expel students who are violent or misbehave: true. That ought to be how it is everywhere. Students who are violent or disruptive ought to be in schools to deal wi their issues—not be allowed to hold an entire class back. Second, your other comments fall into the public schools have bureaucracy and rules & red tape—that, implicitly, harms their success. So…lets force parochial, private and independent schools to live under those onerous rule. (SMH) No…lets get rid of the alleged rules in public schools that are holding them back from success. As for Charters, they were intentionally designed to be free from onerous rules and encouraged to be creative and student centered—and, to help traditional public schools modernize and reinvent themselves. So, again, the answer is to protect the creativity and independence of Charters. Apply lessons learned to public schools—don’t harm successful charters. Respectfully, your focus is on shared misery and shared struggles. Sorry, that’s backwards and upside down. Education should be child-center and empower partners/guardians. The path to success is to work to allow more and more children to succeed. Lifeline is about allowing poor & working class parents/guardians to rescue their children from the worst schools. Anyone opposing that simple, child-centered compassionate plan has placed political or ideological concerns above those children. Thanks.

  6. “…those numbers don’t tell the whole story” is an understatement. What has been inflicted upon my hometown over the last 50 years by both Democrats and Republicans is what the mob would call an infamia and it continues. And please, don’t tell me about revitalization; fancy restaurants and velodromes. There will be no Coatesville revitalization until the CASD is revitalized.

  7. Joint Statement from Education Law Center – PA, Public Interest Law Center and O’Melveny 7/24/2023

    EXCERPT: Legislative Leaders Will Not Appeal to the PA Supreme Court in the School Funding Lawsuit

    The decision is final and there is no excuse for state lawmakers to delay action any further.

    Commonwealth Court has, per its June 21 opinion denying legislative leaders’ motion for post-trial relief, “task[ed] Respondents with the challenge of delivering a system of public education that the Pennsylvania Constitution requires – one that provides for every student to receive a meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and civically, which requires that all students have access to a comprehensive, effective, and contemporary system of public education.” Respondents are legally obligated to meet that direction and, as of today, have abandoned any effort to challenge it.

    It is time for our leaders in Harrisburg to work together to comply with the court’s ruling and fulfill their duty to deliver that constitutional system of public education.

    We look forward to building a public school funding system that eliminates longstanding, grave inequities and provides sufficient funding to meet the needs of all students regardless of their communities’ wealth, giving every public school student a meaningful opportunity to succeed.

    The work of developing and implementing a new system that ensures adequate and equitable funding can begin with the state’s Basic Education Funding Commission. State leaders have promised to develop a plan in time for next year’s state budget process that includes a determination of what level of resources schools need to provide every student with the educational opportunities our constitution promises. We know that our state is currently missing the mark by billions of dollars. And while basic education funding is the state’s biggest responsibility, a remedy must also address special education, pre-K and school facilities.

    Commonwealth Court has directed the General Assembly to ensure that public schools have sufficient funding to provide all students with access to a comprehensive, effective, and contemporary public education. That judgment is now final.

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