According to Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D-Montgomery), ensuring that “political gamesmanship did not interfere with funding for our most vulnerable” was a priority of the governor and House Democrats in avoiding a budget impasse this year.
At the same time, it seems political gamesmanship was the basis for Bradford’s op-ed in the aftermath of the budget process, in which he ventures to “set the record straight” on the contentious negotiations, in which the bipartisan Lifeline Scholarships program was the major point of contention.
Matt Bradford made the curious decision to open his op-ed with the argument that there is no state budget impasse. It was curious because Governor Shapiro’s own website proffers a “Budget Impasse Q & A” (see the screenshot below). Tone setting at its finest, this was not.
A further review of the op-ed begs mentioning the over $140,000 in campaign donations Bradford has received over the past five years from the National Education Association, and the collective $89,500 received from four of the eight unions signed on to the joint letter denouncing the proposed school vouchers — AFSCME, AFL-CIO, UFCW, and PA SEIU.
Nothing about this is new or surprising — nearly every elected official in the nation accepts money from special interest groups and supports policies on their behalf. It does, however, provide some useful context for Bradford’s attitude towards subsidies the 2023–24 budget would provide to some of Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable children trapped in the commonwealth’s most dysfunctional schools.
What Matt Bradford describes in his op-ed as “private school funding” is not that. Lifeline Scholarships are funding for families who otherwise lack the financial freedom to send their children to safer, academically adequate schools, as Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia), a co-sponsor to the Senate proposal for Lifeline Scholarships describes.
Sen. Williams laid out the simple case for the Lifeline Scholarship program as “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.”
Bradford, on the other hand, has gone on record calling the program a “distraction” from broader education funding reform.
While education funding reform may have its merits, Bradford’s op-ed offers no suggestions for how failing districts will spend increased funding to improve outcomes, no concrete dollar amount for how much funding is “enough,” and doesn’t attempt to refute that Lifeline Scholarships would achieve their intended short-term positive outcome.
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In essence, the House Majority Leader offers no reassurance to families in failing school districts that his preferred outcome of the budget negotiations results in any practical progress in their favor, or provided any immediate solutions.
Instead, Bradford’s focus is on dispelling the notion that there was a “Great Betrayal” in the state budget negotiations this year, largely based on an apparent technicality.
Matt Bradford claims there was never any concrete deal struck between the governor and the Senate Republicans, and by that definition there was no betrayal. He states that “nobody lied” to the Republicans, and that they simply “chose not to listen.”
If that’s true, perhaps the entire budget impasse could’ve been avoided if Senate Republicans “chose not to listen” to Gov. Shapiro all along his 2022 gubernatorial campaign trail.
The education policy page on Shapiro’s campaign website previously stated, “Josh favors adding choices for parents and educational opportunity for students and funding Lifeline Scholarships like those approved in other states and introduced in Pennsylvania.”
It doesn’t get much clearer than that — and considering how budget negotiations played out, it makes sense why this page has since been scrubbed from the internet (but is still accessible via the Wayback Machine).
This isn’t the only instance of Shapiro coming out in favor of school vouchers or school choice, either. School choice advocates praised him and union advocates chastised him about this for the better part of a year.
So, while Bradford tries to “set the record straight” on this matter, is it really that far a stretch to imagine why Republicans and school choice advocates felt betrayed by Shapiro’s reversal after he went on record claiming not just to support expanded school choice in concept, but to specifically and unambiguously advocate for Lifeline Scholarships?
Perhaps the greatest betrayal of all was committed by Leader Matt Bradford against the families trapped in failing public school districts — families many in his own caucus claim to represent.
When establishment Democrats have to choose between improved academic outcomes for poor children and the preferred legislative outcomes of teachers’ unions, they will pick those that line their pockets every single time.
Consider the difference between how Williams and Bradford describe Lifeline Scholarships. Bradford, an affluent lawyer who hails from Pennsylvania’s richest county, refers to Lifeline Scholarships as a “distraction.” Conversely, a Senator from Bradford’s own party, who has long represented some of the poorest and most dangerous urban neighborhoods in the commonwealth, concludes they will help those he represents access schools that meet the most basic standards of academic attainment and safety.
At best, this contrast highlights a lack of appreciation for the urgent need felt by families for the right to school choice, a world where geography is not destiny. At worst, it highlights Bradford’s intentionally disingenuous characterization of a substantive policy proposal simply because it challenges a status quo preferred by those who fill Bradford’s political coffers.
It also reveals the very real fissures between the progressive elites and the socio-economically disadvantaged populations that make up the core of the Democratic coalition.
So much for Bradford’s alleged dismay with political gamesmanship.
In most cases, the issues students face and parents are most concerned about within the lowest-performing school districts go beyond what increased state funding can realistically and reliably address — behavioral incidents including constant fights, persistent bullying, and random violence on or near school property.
Parents in these districts understand that, which is part of why school choice is popular among the majority of black and brown Democratic voters, while these same voters are more than twice as likely as white progressives to hold favorable opinions of public charter schools.
While there are certainly conversations to be had about improving the methods by which Pennsylvania public schools are funded, the current conversation surrounding Lifeline Scholarships goes beyond overly simplistic platitudes about education funding, and is one which involves an actual tangible solution for families in a time-sensitive and dire situation.
Bradford expresses that Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R-Armstrong) asked him to “move on a very vital issue for his caucus, and yet he was unwilling to move on issues important to [the Democratic] caucus,” but he neglects to mention the fact that this program has received expressed Democratic support from every branch of the state government.
So, while Matt Bradford waits for Republicans to sweeten the pot on Lifeline Scholarships in an apparent rejection of political gamesmanship, families wait and hope that somehow ever-increasing school budgets with little accountability will improve schools quickly enough to make a meaningful difference for the children in their household this school year.
Unfortunately for those families, they are likely to wait for a while. If there’s one iron law in the politics of education these days, it’s this: establishment Democrats, particularly the self-ordained progressive elites, may talk a good game about helping kids, but when they have to choose between improved academic outcomes for poor children and the preferred legislative outcomes of teachers’ unions political directors, they will pick those that line their pockets every single time.
It seems that despite Bradford’s best efforts, political gamesmanship did indeed interfere with “funding for our most vulnerable” this year — just like every year.
Terry Tracy is President and CEO of Broad + Liberty.