When government union leaders sent a letter to elected officials urging them to oppose scholarships for low-income students, they left out that part about declining test scores.
The letter signatories — the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 13 (AFSCME 13), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Pennsylvania American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations affiliate (PA AFL-CIO), Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Pennsylvania State Council, United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), and several other unions — also failed to point out that the public school system is on the receiving end of ever-expanding buckets of taxpayer money despite offering a poor return on those investments to the very students who would be eligible for scholarships.
Under the sins of omission, the letter — addressed to Gov. Josh Shapiro and members of the General Assembly — also sidestepped any discussion of how taxpayers and students would benefit from Lifeline Scholarships, referred to as the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) Program in the 2023–24 budget.
Pennsylvania Department of Education figures show that school per-pupil spending increased to $21,263 in the 2021–21 school year and that state support of public education hits an all-time high of nearly $15.5 billion in the 2023–24 school year.
By contrast, Lifeline Scholarships/PASS would alleviate taxpayer expense by educating students for much less through Education Opportunity Accounts that return tax dollars to parents with students in the worst-performing schools so they could cover the cost of private school tuition and other approved educational expenses. Numbers for Lifeline Scholarship/PASS accounts are $2,500 for a student in half-day kindergarten, $5,000 for a student in full-day kindergarten through eighth grade, $10,000 for students in grades nine through twelve, and $15,000 for special-needs students regardless of grade.
While the teacher unions continue to cry poor, the reality is school districts would not lose any funding even if scholarships enable students to leave their public school. Shapiro’s budget deal with the Senate made Lifeline Scholarships/PASS a new separate appropriation precisely to avoid impacting public school funding.
But don’t bother union bosses with the facts. In their letter, union bosses claim the scholarships would “divert” funding from public schools. They also purport to speak for rank-and-file union members who do not necessarily share their views.
However, school choice is popular. A fresh statewide poll shows a significant majority (67 percent) support Lifeline Scholarships/PASS. This figure would likely include residents who are members of the unions listed in the letter opposing educational freedom.
But an analysis of campaign finance figures from the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank, shows that, since 2007, Pennsylvania’s government unions spent almost $100 million of their membership dues on politics that support progressive outfits hostile to school choice, such as the Keystone Research Center, Pennsylvania United, and Pennsylvania Spotlight.
Shapiro, who walked back campaign pledges and a pre-budget promise to support Lifeline Scholarships/PASS with his line-item veto of the program’s $100 million appropriation, received more than $5.5 million from government unions during last year’s gubernatorial race. These donations include $1.25 million from the political action committee (PAC) AFSCME People, $775,000 from PSEA Political Action Committee for Education (PACE)for State Elections, $750,000 from SEIU International, $600,000 from SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, $500,000 from AFT, $250,000 from AFT Pennsylvania, and $160,000 from UFCW International. All were letter signatories pressuring the governor and legislators to abandon their support for school choice.
During the 2021–22 election cycle, contributions to local and state legislative candidates comprised more than 48 percent of all direct government union contributions, and 92.3 percent went to Democratic candidates. In the same cycle, government union PACs spent over $20 million—of which $13.1 million funded candidates and partisan PACs. This campaign spending helps explain why opposition to school choice tends to concentrate in one party.
Yet, Republicans are not immune to this undue influence, either. In the last election cycle, government unions contributed to 131 Democratic House candidates and 81 Republican House candidates. In some instances, government unions donated to both candidates. For example, Rep. Melissa Cerrato, a Montgomery County Democrat, received $2,500 from government unions, while her Republican opponent, Todd Stephens, received $75,024.
But despite all the money directed against school choice, Rep. Seth Grove, a York County Republican who ardently supports Lifeline Scholarships/PASS, sees parental activism helping to level the political playing field.
“You’re seeing parents become very passionate and very engaged on the school choice issue,” Grove said in an interview. “Because of their advocacy at the local level, they are building relationships with their legislatures, telling them not to deny their child the opportunity to obtain a quality education. This takes constant communication, and showing up at events, and telling lawmakers that because they support you, you are supporting them. And if you have a lawmaker that is denying your child the opportunity to obtain educational success, then maybe you run for office.”
In the run-up to the budget deal, the Senate passed Lifeline Scholarship legislation (Senate Bill 795) with bipartisan support, but Rep. Matt Bradford, the Democratic House leader, led the charge for Shapiro’s veto and promised to fight any moves forward on the school choice initiative in the lower chamber. The Montgomery County Democrat has received $451,400 from government unions since 2010, with PSEA accounting for $177,800. Bradford also received the fifth most government union money of any legislator in the 2021–22 cycle, including $80,500 from the PSEA, $37,500 from AFSCME 13, $3,500 from SEIU Pennsylvania State Council, $6,000 from UFCW and $500 from PA AFL-CIO.
With the Pennsylvania Senate scheduled to come back into session on August 30, the upper chamber could insert Lifeline Scholarships/PASS into the fiscal code bills, which determine how state agencies spend their money.
“The budget is a multi-vehicle animal,” Grove said. “You have the general appropriations bill. And once that’s passed, people think the budget is done, but it’s not. The really important part is the fiscal code, and nothing gets done without it. That’s why there’s still a good chance of Lifeline Scholarships getting done because the Democrats can’t fund their priorities without the fiscal code.”
Even so, Grove expressed disappointment that students stuck in the bottom 15 percent of underperforming state schools, who would be eligible for the scholarships, remain in limbo. The most recent Pennsylvania System of School Assessment scores show that 77 percent of eighth-grade students are not proficient in math, and 44 percent are not proficient in language arts.
“We’ve dumped billions of dollars into these schools over the past nine years, and it hasn’t made a difference in the test scores,” Grove said. “Because this proposal is held up, it means kids are potentially losing another year of a quality education, and they will remain at a disadvantage. I believe education is the most powerful tool to move people out of poverty, and Lifeline Scholarships provide a bridge and an opportunity to break out of the cycle where they are in failing schools.”
Kevin Mooney is the Senior Investigative Reporter at the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank, and writes for several national publications. Twitter: @KevinMooneyDC