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Guest Commentary: Shapiro’s Unique Opportunity on Schools

The governor punted on a chance to be the rare Democrat to fund school vouchers in the state budget he just signed. But, a free market advocate argues, it’s not too late

Guest Commentary: Shapiro’s Unique Opportunity on Schools

The governor punted on a chance to be the rare Democrat to fund school vouchers in the state budget he just signed. But, a free market advocate argues, it’s not too late

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro could still be the first in his party to provide genuine school choice for his constituents. Part of Shapiro’s original allure was his ability to think and act for himself. When, as a gubernatorial candidate, he expressed his support for Lifeline Scholarships, Shapiro captured the attention of voters and pundits alike. Bucking the Democratic Party’s orthodoxy, which explicitly rejects school choice in its platform, takes guts.

A few months later, Pennsylvanians rewarded Shapiro by voting him into office by a wide margin.

Shapiro was on track to be the first Democratic governor to sign a significant school-choice initiative into law. The $100 million appropriation for Lifeline Scholarships, called the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) Program in the 2023–24 budget, would provide students trapped in the commonwealth’s lowest-performing schools with education opportunity accounts (EOAs) for use on private tuition.

Instead, Shapiro did what we’ve grown accustomed to in modern politics: When the going gets tough, the not-so-tough take the path of least resistance. Rather than sticking to his guns, Shapiro caved to partisanship and betrayed Pennsylvania’s neediest families by line-item vetoing the Lifeline Scholarship/PASS Program.

Shapiro followed a long line of prominent Democrats who have flip-flopped on school choice.

Consider the trajectory of U.S. Sen. Cory Booker. Booker, a Democrat, was once a rising star in his party. An Oxford-educated black man and a popular New Jersey politician (where he previously served as mayor of Newark), Booker was on the fast track to be the “next Obama.” But his presidential ambitions came to a grinding halt because of his previous support for vouchers and charter schools. The media called his support of school choice a “problem” and a “dilemma” for his national ambitions.

How did Booker respond? He fell into line. Though he had once cosponsored the nation’s only federally funded voucher program, Booker reversed course, telling a Washington Post survey, “The evidence has become clear: Vouchers do not help — and in fact, hurt — the cause of educational equity.” Despite partnering with and serving alongside Betsy DeVos (before she became Education Secretary) on several school-choice initiatives, in 2017, Booker voted along party lines opposing her nomination, saying that he had “no confidence” in her. Once a vocal proponent of charter schools, Booker voted for the U.S. Department of Education’s new restrictive rules directly affecting charter school funding.

President Joe Biden flip-flopped on the issue, too. In 1997, Biden made an impassioned speech on the Senate floor in favor of school choice. “It is legitimate to ask what would happen to the public schools with increased competition from private schools,” he said. “Is it not possible that giving poor kids a way out will force the public schools to improve and result in more people coming back?”

Fast forward to 2020, and then-presidential candidate Biden had abandoned his previous support for school choice. “We’ve got to prioritize investing in our public schools, so every kid in America gets a fair shot,” Biden tweeted. “That’s why I oppose vouchers.”

To be sure, the deck seems stacked against pro-school-choice Democrats like Shapiro.

But the numbers tell another story: There’s a disconnect between Democratic politicians and their voters.

According to data collected in 2022 by Education Next, Democratic-leaning voters favor school choice — often by greater margins than the general public. The poll shows 51 percent of Democrats support a voucher program for lower-income families, compared with 48 percent for all respondents.

A recent poll by the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative Harrisburg think thank, confirmed this trend. Among likely Pennsylvania voters, 78 percent of Democrats — 11 points higher than the average — support EOAs that provide funds to students assigned to low-achieving schools.

Democratic voters seem to want school choice more than their elected representatives.

Shapiro can still do the right thing. The state budget isn’t final, and, despite his veto, the Lifeline Scholarship/PASS Program technically remains on the negotiating table — both facts that Shapiro readily admits. The governor has a once-in-a-lifetime shot to fulfill a popular campaign promise, break the cycle of party politics trumping principles, and provide meaningful educational opportunities to Pennsylvania students.

Considering his national ambitions, Shapiro should not let this opportunity pass.

Charles Mitchell is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank. This piece originally appeared in RealClear Pennsylvania.


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