PA Senate Passes Budget to Include Private School Vouchers Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania legislature is at a standstill over a $100 million private school voucher program at the center of bitter disagreements, just hours before the state’s midnight deadline to pass a new budget bill.

The Republican-controlled state Senate voted late Friday 29-21 to advance a bill that would bring forward about $45 billion in state funds to fund scholarships for K-12 public school students to attend private schools. Approved by majority vote. This is poison for the Democrats who control the state legislature.

“I would say that the voucher issue is over,” said House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D-Montgomery) Friday afternoon before the Senate vote. “This will obviously take time.”

Bradford said the caucuses will leave Harrisburg over the weekend, suggesting the budget bill won’t be presented to Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro before July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.

budget plan State Senate Republicans were due to propose and spend Friday with the support of a Democrat. millions of dollars less That’s more than $1 billion less than the proposal Mr. Shapiro put forward in March. Bill State House Democrats The beginning of June has passed. Republican leadership said it was negotiated in close consultation with Shapiro.

The action includes key Democratic priorities, such as $100 million to be allocated to the poorest schools in the state and the first ever federal funding. For public legal defense. But the plan cuts out other Democrat-backed initiatives, such as tax credit programs for teachers, nurses and police officers.

Democrats, who control one seat in the state House of Representatives, said the inclusion of $100 million in the voucher was a key factor in the bill’s demise.

Shapiro’s office called on all parties to “stay in the Capitol and try to compromise.”

“This bill makes a historic investment in public education, a universal free breakfast for public school students, the first-ever funding of public defenders, critical funding for public safety and mental health, and more. , which reflects many of the key priorities the governor has been working on, said Manuel Bonder, a spokesman for Shapiro, in a statement that “this does not represent a final agreement.”

Voucher conflict

Debate over the vouchers has dragged on for more than a week, pitting Democrats in the state House against Republicans in the state Senate and their first-year governors.

Many state House Democrats are reluctant to put taxes on private schools just a few months from now. state court ruled Many federal public schools are unconstitutionally underfunded.

Republicans have proposed vouchers as a way to give parents more control over their children’s education. Indiana County Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman spoke on the floor Thursday in support of the caucus voucher proposal, trying to show that Mr. Shapiro agreed.

“This is a carefully crafted language between the Senate Republican majority and the new Democratic governor,” Pittman said.

Mr. Shapiro supported vouchers during the campaign and echoed those views during budget negotiations.

In a statement following Pittman’s comments, Bonder said that Shapiro “is part of a full-budget agreement that makes historic investments in public education, as well as critical issues such as student mental health and special needs.” We are open to this initiative as long as we fund our priorities.” Education, universal free breakfasts for all students, and continued funding for necessary and urgent environmental remediation in Pennsylvania schools. ”

Included in the state Senate Republican budget proposal, the voucher proposal would create the Pennsylvania Student Success Award (PASS) Scholarship Program, worth $100 million.

Eligible students will receive state-supported vouchers ranging from $2,500 to $15,000 annually, depending on the grade level and whether the student needs special education services. The money can only be used for nonpublic school tuition or related expenses, including special education costs.

Students who live in public school districts classified as “” are eligible.poor grades— that is, in the bottom 15% of all schools of its kind in reading and mathematics. Funds are limited to children whose household income is less than 250%. Federal Poverty Guidelines. For example, a family of four must earn less than $75,000 a year to qualify.

Scholarships will begin in the 2024-25 academic year and will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis to eligible students who apply. In subsequent years, priority will be given to children who have already received a scholarship.

The bill states that the program will be funded from state income taxes, and that the allocation will increase each year as funding for federal public schools increases.

The coupon proposal is backed by free market groups, celebrities and prominent Republicans.

A coalition of these groups and individuals sent a letter to Secretary of Education Shapiro and Congress on Thursday urging passage of the voucher. They argue that vouchers do not undermine public education and that reducing class sizes in public schools actually saves money.

>> Read more: What are Lifeline Scholarships in Pennsylvania? Discusses School Choices, Vouchers and Budgeting

“No student should be stuck in a failing school because of a zip code,” the letter said. “[Tuition vouchers] All students will have access to an excellent education regardless of family socioeconomic status or zip code. ”

Signatories include prominent conservatives such as Grover Norquist and former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, as well as music industry figures with ties to Philadelphia, such as rapper Meek Mill and talent manager Troy Carter. was also included.

Teachers’ unions, as well as construction workers’ unions and labor unions representing state workers, condemned the vouchers as a dangerous move for Pennsylvania’s education system.

A group of these unions wrote to Mr. Shapiro last week, arguing that the voucher bill, by definition, diverts funds that could be spent in public schools to private schools.

“Pennsylvania has a moral and constitutional responsibility to fund the existing public education system,” they wrote. “In particular, following a Commonwealth Court ruling that the state’s public education funding system is unconstitutional, it is unacceptable to discuss a tuition voucher system that diverts funds from public school students.”

Opponents also expressed concerns about academic standards. The voucher bill did not include guidelines on what private schools could teach, and states would allow “participating nonpublic schools to receive money from scholarship recipients in excess of the amount needed to operate the program. It states that the program cannot be ‘regulated’.

Dan Yurevic Ackersberg, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center who helped argue the successful lawsuit that found Pennsylvania’s school funding system unfair, also said the bill tolerates discrimination against students. claimed.

A Pennsylvania human relations law that prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, or disability. not explicitly applied To a private school in the Commonwealth.federal law prevent Although private schools do not discriminate on the basis of race, further protection has been an issue for schools in the past, resulting in argue that such protection violates religious freedom.

The new voucher bill does not include additional protections in exchange for private schools receiving state funding. Professor Ulevik Ackersberg said this would allow the school to deny admission to students on the grounds of religion, sexual orientation, ability to speak English or learning disabilities.

“Religious schools can say, ‘Sorry, we don’t accept gay children at this school,'” he said, adding that the state of Pennsylvania “never uses public funds to allow discrimination against children.” It should not be used,” he added.

what’s next?

Before leaving town on Friday, state House Democrats said they believe any budget should better reflect their priorities, especially when it comes to education.

State House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jordan Harris (D, Philadelphia) said the deal would have to be negotiated with “all parties involved,” and this is because the state Senate’s proposal is being negotiated between Republicans and Mr. Shapiro. It alludes to the fact that

“We are the majority in this House and agency, so our priorities must be reflected in the final product,” Harris said.

Shapiro asked lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol to be more flexible.

“Now that Republicans have completely dominated Congress for decades, Senate Republicans need to do more than ever. And after decades of being in the minority, House Democrats wanted something in You can’t expect to have it all,” he said in a statement.

At the time of this article’s publication, Democratic leaders in the state’s House of Representatives have not announced when voting will resume. The members were told they were on the phone for six hours before returning to Harrisburg.

After passing the budget on Friday, state Senate Republican leaders told reporters they would continue to support Mr. Shapiro if he remained committed to funding private school vouchers. But he warned that if Shapiro withdrew his support, the deal would be “null” and the total budget would be cut.

“The governor made it clear that he supports” [vouchers]said Pittman. “As long as we keep hearing that he supports the initiative, we will support him.” PA Senate Passes Budget to Include Private School Vouchers Spotlight PA

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