Political figures are advancing unsustainable arguments about education, Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, a Westmoreland County Republican, said in an interview. Wealthy politicians who send their children to private schools while denying the same opportunity to low-income families have placed themselves in an untenable position with a growing number of constituents who favor school choice, she argues.

But the senator also expressed concern that, in Pennsylvania, time is a factor for students who remain stuck in failing schools while reform efforts stall in the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

Sen. Kim Ward pointed to Stacy Davis Gates, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, who received criticism for enrolling her child in a private school while opposing scholarship programs in Illinois that would enable poor residents to do the same.

“When the union president pulled her son out of a public school and put him in a private school, she made all kinds of excuses and talked about how her son had to follow his dreams,” Ward said. “But she’s essentially telling others who don’t have the money to do this that you have to leave your child in failing schools and let them stay there.”

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Sen. Kim Ward is an ardent supporter of a bill that would create Lifeline Scholarships, now known as the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS), for students residing in schools ranked in the bottom fifteen percent of standardized test scores. This program would provide Education Opportunity Accounts that families could use to cover private school tuition, tutoring services, transportation costs, and other pre-approved educational expenses.

Although Gov. Josh Shapiro repeatedly endorsed the concept during his campaign, he vetoed the 2023–24 budget appropriation for the program. Since Shapiro received more than $5.5 million from government unions during his campaign, it’s reasonable to assume the pressure applied by his union benefactors had an impact.

But Ward views the veto as a byproduct of the governor’s failure to corral House Democrats.

“He just decided not to fight,” Ward said. “This was a surprise to all of us because he campaigned openly in supporting some version of the scholarships. If he feels strongly about helping financially poor students in failing schools, then it seems to me there could be some kind of deal between the House Democrats and the governor to get this done.”

In August, the Senate passed fiscal code legislation that included Lifeline Scholarships/PASS with a 28–19 vote. The budget is incomplete until the House and Senate agree on the fiscal code. But the House — under the leadership of House Majority Leader Matt Bradford, a Montgomery County Democrat — responded to the Senate earlier this month by advancing a fiscal code explicitly omitting Lifeline Scholarships/PASS.

Under the Senate version, eligible students in grades K–8 would receive $5,000 annually ($2,500 for half-day kindergarten), while students in grades 9–12 would receive $10,000 annually. Special needs students would receive $15,000 annually, regardless of their grade.

Despite the intransigence of Bradford and a handful of other House members, Ward is optimistic.

“We have come closer than we ever have before in making a real breakthrough in creating new opportunities for students in failing schools,” she said. “There’s enough support in the House for the [Lifeline Scholarships/PASS] to pass if it were to come to the House floor.”

The bottom line is that if Lifeline came to the floor, it would pass.

Sen. Kim Ward estimated that about 30 House Democrats might be willing to vote yes if there was a floor vote. Kevin Kane, the director of legislative strategy for the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank in Harrisburg, concurs with the state senator’s assessment. “You have dysfunctional leadership in the House standing in the way of growing, broad bipartisan support for scholarships that could have a transformative impact on the lives of children whom elected officials claim to represent,” Kane said.

Democrats hold just a one-seat majority of 102–101 in the Pennsylvania House.

“This is all about preventing the bill from coming to the House floor,” Ward said. “I think the governor even tried to give the Democrats cover by saying you can vote for this because we’re going to get all these other goodies. The bottom line is that if Lifeline came to the floor, it would pass.”

Nathan Benefield, the foundation’s senior vice president, addressed these “goodies” in a press release.

“Democrats are holding up their own budget priorities, including hospital funding, hundreds of millions in increases for public schools, and the Whole Home Repairs program,” he said. “The devotion to extremist ideology and special interest groups jeopardizes the legislature’s chance for a bipartisan resolution to the state’s prolonged budget impasse.”

Those special interests include teacher unions and other government unions, which heavily invest in blocking education reform. An analysis of campaign finance records from the Commonwealth Foundation shows that, since 2007, government union political action committees (PACS) have spent more than $93 million. The Pennsylvania State Education Association’s (PSEA) PAC spent the most: almost $22 million in this time frame.

But PSEA is hardly alone. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers spent $4.7 million, $664,174, and $965,126, respectively.

And those are just the teacher unions.

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In the most recent 2023 cycle, more than 92 percent of government union donations went to Democrats. House Speaker Joanna McClinton, who represents parts of Philadelphia and Delaware counties received the most of any House Democrat at $80,000. Bradford came in second, receiving more than $66,000. Government unions also donated $226,000 to the House Democratic Campaign Committee. 

That’s a lot of money and organization to overcome, but Sen. Kim Ward detects a growing appetite for education reform among the public and with Democrats with constituents in failing schools. A new statewide survey, organized through the Commonwealth Foundation, shows many Pennsylvania residents support Lifeline Scholarships/PASS. Specifically, the survey found that 65 percent of Pennsylvania voters believe Shapiro should make good on his agreement with Senate lawmakers to include Lifeline Scholarships/PASS in the 2023–24 budget.

Seth Grove, a York County House Republican, sees an element of “elitism” at work among some elected officials from within and without Pennsylvania who oppose school choice while sending their own children to private schools.

“They are disrespecting parents, and the parents know this,” Grove said. “They will tell their constituents they support reforms and options in education, but then they continually vote against it. That’s becoming a harder position for them to maintain.”

But while the House fiddles, Ward is concerned that the students who would most benefit from new scholarships are losing out.

“These kids don’t have years to wait,” Ward said. “Financially strapped families cannot just pick up and move their kids to a better school. Every day that goes by is another day that is wasted on not helping these kids get a job, go to trade school, or go to college and have a productive opportunity.”

Thirteen states now offer one or more similar EOAs, known as Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), “funded directly from state revenues,” according to Education Next. One more has an ESA program with funding from tax credits. Moreover, 2023 has seen 111 school-choice bills introduced in 40 states for vouchers, tax credits, and ESAs, of which over two-thirds are ESA bills. Grove anticipates that Pennsylvania will ultimately add further momentum to the school choice movement in areas where it is most needed. Like Ward, he also counts about 30 House Democrats who support the Lifeline bill.

“Shapiro’s goal of just getting a budget done ended up backfiring, having long-term consequences, and creating mistrust along with broken promises,” Grove said. “But there’s still ample opportunity to get this done. I fully believe education is the most powerful tool to move people out of poverty and Lifeline scholarships provide a bridge and an opportunity that the governor says he supports.”

Kevin Mooney is the Senior Investigative Reporter at the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank, and writes for several national publications. @KevinMooneyDC

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