$100M school choice program woven into key budget bill



(The Center Square) – Lawmakers began debating a key budget bill late Thursday that would devote $100 million to a divisive school choice program.

The proposal, formerly known as Lifeline Scholarships, would use personal income tax revenue to fund grants worth between $2,500 and $15,000 to cover tuition, tutoring and educational expenses outside of the public school system.

The revised program, now called the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success Program, restricts the grants to families who earn below 250% of the poverty line and live in the attendance zones of schools that rank among the bottom 15% in the state, based on math and reading test scores.

The development comes the same day a high-profile coalition of supporters sent a letter to the Legislature and Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administration in support of the scholarship program. In the document, signatories point to data that shows 250,000 students attend low-performing schools – defined as falling within the bottom 15% – across 39 counties.

Among the elementary schools in this group, less than 8% of students scored proficient in math, while less than one-quarter are proficient in English.

Not one student across six low-performing high schools read at grade level. Another 33 schools report zero students performing math at grade level. Minority, low-income students “are overrepresented” in these schools, according to the letter.

Critics say the program would be costly and duplicative of existing business tax credit programs that pay private school tuition for low-income students. In March 2022, a coalition of education groups – including the state’s largest teachers’ union – said a similar bill would cost Pennsylvania $170 million each year if just 10% of eligible students applied.

Supporters challenge that math, saying states save money when students instead attend nonpublic schools or enroll in online programs. A 2021 Ed Choice study concluded that school choice programs – across 19 states and Washington, D.C. – generated between $1.80 and $2.85 in savings for every dollar spent on the programs. The savings result from an enrollment shift that lessens the strain on the public school system.

In the letter, signatories said the scholarship amounts represent just a fraction of the $21,300 average spent per public school student in Pennsylvania. The funding for the program would come from its pot of money, not the basic education appropriation made each year.

According to the bill’s fiscal note, Treasurer Stacy Garrity estimates the total cost of the program will run $103 million, once administrative expenses are included.

Garrity, in a statement to The Center Square, said “too many Pennsylvania children are stuck in low-performing schools.”

“We owe it to those students – and their parents – to give them a real chance to thrive and succeed,” she said.

Shapiro said recently he supports the concept – a fact Republicans in the Senate repeated multiple times during floor debate.

The bill, however, must also clear the Democratic-controlled House, where majority support is much less likely. Without it, the multi-bill framework that creates the state budget will collapse.

The budget is due Friday.



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