In a year when the school choice movement has racked up a string of victories in red states, Pennsylvania was on track to become the first state to see a Democratic governor sign a publicly funded school choice policy into law.
On Wednesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro announced that he would line-item veto the $100 million allocated in the state budget by the Republican-controlled state Senate for the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success scholarship program.
Those scholarships, which Shapiro had promised to support during his election campaign, were included as a part of a package deal the governor made with state Senate Republicans. The $45.5 billion budget deal “included key Democratic priorities like increased education funding, universal free school breakfast, and the commonwealth’s first-ever funding for public legal defense.”
One of the primary reasons Republicans were willing to support a budget with those elements was because it also included the scholarship program, which would have allowed low-income families whose children were assigned to low-performing district schools to receive scholarships to attend private schools.
School choice policies redirect existing funds to allow families to choose the schools that align with their values and work best for their children.
After the Senate Republicans voted for the budget package and sent it to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, House Democrats balked. They liked the billions in spending on Democratic priorities, but not the scholarship program that shifts control over education from union-run schools to parents. But if they modified the budget in any way, it would have to go back to the state Senate, where Republicans would likely cut Democratic priorities and reopen negotiations.
Shapiro had a simple solution: Pass the budget as is, and he would just line-item veto the scholarship program. The Democrats would then keep everything they had negotiated without having to give low-income families scholarships in return.
After Shapiro’s announcement, Senate Republicans blasted the governor for deciding “to betray the good-faith agreement we reached, leaving tens of thousands of children across Pennsylvania in failing schools.”
Shapiro is also betraying the voters: While campaigning for governor, he promised to support school choice.
Last September, Shapiro’s campaign website said that he favored “adding choices for parents and educational opportunity for students and funding lifeline scholarships like those approved in other states and introduced in Pennsylvania.”
His support for the issue came after Shapiro drew criticism for opposing school choice while sending his own children to private school.
Shapiro likely felt pressure from the voters to support school choice, but he was certainly also feeling pressure from a key Democratic Party constituency—namely, the teachers unions—to oppose school choice.
As reported in The Daily Signal last fall, campaign finance records show that “in the 2022 election cycle, the Pennsylvania State Education Association’s political action committee donated $775,000 to Shapiro’s gubernatorial campaign” as well as “more than $1 million to Democratic legislative candidates.”
Additionally, the union-affiliated Fund for Student Success political action committee “contributed $1.475 million to the Democratic Governors Association, which was the largest contributor to Shapiro, giving more than $7.25 million to Shapiro for Governor through its political action committee.”
The unions and other left-wing groups also spent more than $1 million attacking the issue of school choice in Pennsylvania last fall.
Shapiro, then the state’s attorney general, vastly outraised and outspent his Republican rival, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, en route to a landslide win with 56.5% of the vote.
One is left to wonder whether Shapiro ever really supported school choice, or just used it as an election issue and a bargaining chip to extract concessions from Senate Republicans before stabbing them in the back. Either way, it’s disadvantaged children who are paying the price—at least for now.
But the fight is not over. Senate Republicans will have other opportunities to pressure Shapiro to keep his earlier commitment to Pennsylvania’s children. What remains to be seen is whether they have the fortitude to do so.
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