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What are vouchers, anyway?

Vouchers are essentially passes for students to attend a private school instead of a public school, using public funds to help defray the expense of tuition and fees.  It is one of many school choice options, all designed to help students in neighborhoods where the public schools are performing poorly. As opposed to a tax credit or scholarship program that funds attendance at private schools, vouchers pay taxpayer dollars for these students directly to private schools.

For a helpful overview of the issue and explanation of the changing terminology, check out this piece from Spotlight PA: What are Pa.’s lifeline scholarships? School choice, vouchers, and the budget debate, explained

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Do The House Dems Want to Lose Power?

In the budget fight over school vouchers, the Dems have overplayed their hand politically … and invited mega-donor Jeff Yass to flip their already tenuous majority

Do The House Dems Want to Lose Power?

In the budget fight over school vouchers, the Dems have overplayed their hand politically … and invited mega-donor Jeff Yass to flip their already tenuous majority

“It’s the Platt curse!” A well-known political consultant called to tell me a couple weeks ago. I’d just praised Governor Josh Shapiro’s political skills, and then — presto! — he failed to get a budget passed.

Conventional wisdom has it that Shapiro underestimated the unanimity of the House Democratic caucus’ then-one-seat majority when it came to one controversial issue: a state-funded scholarship program called PASS — short for Pennsylvania Award for Student Success. A reworked version of the Lifeline Scholarship program considered by the state Senate last year, it’s a voucher system that would enable kids from underperforming schools to afford the kind of private schools kids with means regularly opt for.

House Speaker Joanna McClinton and Leader Matt Bradford led a unanimous opposition to a deal the Governor reportedly made with Republicans on PASS. Now we still don’t have a budget, and Republicans are crying foul, saying Shapiro gave them his word, or led them to believe, that he’d get enough Democratic votes to cross the finish line, which he denies.

We may never know exactly what went down in the negotiations. But we do know that the talks consisted of a lot of honorable public servants who had not often been in the room where it happens: Shapiro, McClinton, Bradford, Republican Leader Kim Ward, and Republican Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman. When a deal didn’t materialize — Shapiro was angling for historic public education spending to go with the $100 million voucher program — much of the commentary focused on the governor and what this snafu might mean for the prospects of his first term. (The deal, by the way, isn’t dead yet; I’m told that some talks are ongoing.)

But a more interesting question might be: Just what were the House Democrats thinking? Did they essentially choose fealty to the teachers and their powerfully-allied unions over maintaining their slim majority?

A ripe time for flexible dealmaking

Keep in mind, the Dems just gained the majority last year — by all of one seat. (With the resignation this week of Rep. Sara Innamorato to run for Allegheny County Executive, even that slim margin is at least temporarily gone). Moreover, there are a handful of seats that just as easily could revert right back to Republican control come 2024. You’d think the time would be ripe for some flexible dealmaking, no? That the Dems, motivated to hold onto, and build upon, their majority in 2024, would be inclined to sign on to something that appeals to Independents and their base, by virtue of nearly $800 million in new basic education spending? (You can’t very well argue that vouchers are draining public schools of much-needed dollars when you’ve just funded said schools at a historic level, right?)

“The truth is that access to a high-quality education and opportunity – that includes access to scholarships and vouchers — are not partisan issues unless we allow them to be.” — Kevin Chavous and Donald Hense

Instead, in an act of questionable political acumen, the Dems opted to essentially poke the state’s most formidable big money bear: billionaire donor, libertarian, and voucher evangelist Jeff Yass, who has spent a boatload of money over the last decade to influence local elections — mostly to no avail — but who is fresh off a multimillion-dollar win as the chief funder of all those anti-Helen Gym ads in the recent mayoral race.

Those toss-up House seats which went Democratic because, at the top of the ticket, Shapiro beat his gubernatorial opponent Doug Mastriano by a massive 15 points, are now vulnerable in 2024 by virtue of this invitation to Yass to drop, say, $30 million in a House-flipping effort.

Come to think of it, the poking didn’t stop at Yass. In defying a governor whose coattails helped them achieve power and who is riding high in the polls — especially after his I-95 national star turn — House Dems may have created even more problems for themselves. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Josh supports individual candidates but doesn’t lift a finger to help the House Democratic Campaign Committee,” in the next election, one Harrisburg player noted.

Missteps on all sides

I’ve talked to two rank-and-file Democratic House members and a number of other House insiders, and am told there was some Democratic support for a voucher deal possible, particularly from a handful of African-American members, in keeping with polling that shows nearly 70 percent of Blacks and Democrats as a whole support vouchers.

That might have been enough to allow the deal to pass. But if Shapiro underestimated the resolve of House Dem leadership’s opposition to vouchers, as appears to be conventional wisdom, the unspoken truth is that it may have actually been the House Dems doing the underestimating. They didn’t anticipate the power of the opposition to the deal.

Not only did the teachers’ union launch an all-out campaign, as expected. They were joined by a cavalcade of union power, including Council 13 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Local 1776 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, and the Pennsylvania Building Trades. There’s something to be said for One For All, And All For One union alignment, but historically there have been plenty of instances where unions take positions by themselves on a policy based on how they perceive it affects their membership.

Another House member told me that the real story is what was not on the negotiating table as much as what was. Had a deal included a graduated minimum wage increase, I was told, hardly anyone in the Democratic caucus would have had the gall to go back to their district and say, “I’m not giving you a raise because of $100 million in vouchers.” What’s not known is whether that was just a non-starter on the Republican side.

In other words: Any deal here required the precision of surgeon-like hands on all sides. But the side that seems to have dropped the ball the most — if only because it has the most to lose — are the Dems. When it comes to vouchers, they’re shortsighted on the policy side, essentially defending a system that, in Philly, finds 72 percent of third graders not reading at grade level.

Democrats are hemorrhaging working-class voters, both Black and White — something Shapiro understands, given that his first act upon taking office was to do away with the requirement of a four-year college degree for 65,000 state jobs.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Josh supports individual candidates but doesn’t lift a finger to help the House Democratic Campaign Committee,” one Harrisburg player noted.

“The class inversion of American politics — with most professionals supporting Democrats and more working-class people backing Republicans — is one of the most consequential developments in American life,” writes David Leonhardt of the New York Times, referencing what for Democrats ought to be chilling findings in a report from the Center for Working-Class Politics. “A key point [in the report] is that even modest shifts in the working-class vote can decide elections. If President Biden wins 50 percent of the non-college vote next year, he will almost certainly be re-elected. If he wins only 45 percent, he will probably lose.”

How does this relate to vouchers? If you’re a working-class Commonwealth parent, your kid is only in third grade once. To you, education isn’t some abstract debate; it’s an urgent matter. Telling parents it’s just too bad that their kid is stuck in an underperforming school while parents of greater means are free to put their kids in better schools? That’s akin to playing education roulette with other people’s children. It has a decidedly let them eat cake feel to it, coming from an increasingly elitist party.

Seen that way, vouchers become a newfangled issue of equity. And, to return to the devil himself, that’s kind of been Jeff Yass’ argument all along. I don’t know him well, but years ago I published a fascinating profile of him by Robert Huber in Philly Mag. He’s an ultra-rationalist, an extreme libertarian, and a risk-taker by nature. He’s not, as often portrayed in local media, some wild-eyed MAGA Republican.

Yass has funded the Yass Prize, a $1 million award that seeks to be “the Pulitzer of Education Innovation.” It also underwrites a series in Forbes that tends to make the case that a pro-choice party when it comes to abortion ought to be pro-choice in education, too.

Kevin Chavous, president of the education reform group Stride, Inc., and Donald Hense, founder of Friendship Public Charter School, wrote in one such piece:

Between the two of us, we have more than a century of experience working to rectify the most stubborn inequities in American society, particularly for young Black and Brown people. We are both proud HBCU graduates who have dedicated ourselves to creating or supporting organizations that ensure equal rights for all. We’ve worked for some of our nation’s greatest civil rights leaders, such as Marion Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund…

The truth is that access to a high-quality education and opportunity – that includes access to scholarships and vouchers — are not partisan issues unless we allow them to be. Either you believe that students should be relegated to a failing school simply because of their zip code, or you don’t. Either you believe that students with special needs deserve access to better academic opportunities outside their local school district, or you don’t. Either you believe that low-income, underserved children have the right to attend an exceptional charter or private school that’s more personalized and safer than their assigned school, or you don’t. Of course, we know that there are a host of great public schools that work for kids. Still, like us, millions of Democrats agree that a one-size-fits-all approach to education simply doesn’t work. We know because we’ve seen it.

Almost a decade ago, Yass’ wife, Janine, invited me to tour Boys’ Latin, their charter school. The data they’ve built up over the years is impressive, with over 75 percent of students matriculating to college, but more than that is the experience of being there: You know when learning is taking place; it’s in the air. I saw a principal, the since-retired David Hardy, not afraid to lead young men into adulthood. I saw rigorous academic study in real time.

There are criticisms to be made of Jeff Yass — one power broker once said to me, “The problem with Jeff is that if you told him you’d do vouchers in exchange for relaxing gun laws, he might just go for it, he’s so single-issue minded.” — but give him this: The guy is deeply engaged in trying to address the persistent failures of a system he sees as inherently unfair, sclerotic, and uncaring, as an Inquirer op-ed penned by him and his wife made clear last week.

“We do what we do on behalf of the tens of thousands of low-income residents, those stuck in failing schools, or those serving in prison because their schools failed them,” they wrote.

I don’t know how much of a difference vouchers will ultimately make — some studies cite disappointing results. Which is why a deal in Pennsylvania that framed vouchers as a year-long pilot would have at least yielded interesting results and been a political win/win. Some Democrats, like Shapiro and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker have supported vouchers because they know what our history shows. They’ve heeded FDR’s long-ago advice — “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something” — and know that, politically, a party that is open to trying new things stands a better chance of convincing voters it has their backs than one that seems to double down on a failing and inequitable status quo.

Correction: A previous version of this piece misstated which building trades union was against the deal. It was the state organization. 


Clockwise from top: Gov. Josh Shapiro, PA House Speaker Joanna McClinton, House Leader Matt Bradford, and House Republican Leader Kim Ward.

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