Meek Mill among 65 endorsing lifeline scholarships



(The Center Square) — Lifeline scholarships in Pennsylvania just got a celebrity endorsement, according to a letter sent to the governor’s administration Thursday.

Meek Mill – a rapper, activist, and Philadelphia native – is one of the lead signatories on a letter sent to Gov. Josh Shapiro, two of his cabinet members, and the General Assembly that says the Lifeline Scholarship program will free students trapped in “failing” schools, irrespective “of their family’s socioeconomic status or their zip code.”

The development comes days after the governor signaled support for the program on Fox News, despite backlash from many of his Democratic allies.

And Mill isn’t the only high-profile name listed on the document. Music producers, presidential cabinet members – including Bill Bennet and Betsy DeVos – faith leaders, advocacy groups, and former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey were among the 65 signatories.

In the letter, supporters pointed to a recent state court ruling that deemed Pennsylvania’s education funding system unconstitutional and said should be fixed to ensure “every student receives a meaningful opportunity to succeed.”

“Lifeline Scholarships are the way to deliver on that promise,” the letter says.

Mill’s endorsement comes amid a wave of attention surrounding lifeline scholarships that’s overshadowed the state’s historically frenzied budget negotiation process. Due Friday, it’s unclear how close a final spending plan will come to the $44.4 billion proposal Shapiro introduced in March – but supporters hope lifeline scholarships will be a part of the final product.

The program would create a separate grant fund for students assigned to low-performing schools that could cover the cost of tuition, tutoring and other educational expenses outside of the public system.

Specifically, the scholarship would offer $5,000 to students in full-day kindergarten through eighth grade and $10,000 for grades nine through 12. Special education students would receive $15,000, no matter the grade level. The program also sets aside $2,500 for half-day kindergarteners.

In the letter, supporters 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.

Although the Democratic-majority House can effectively block the proposed bill, enabling legislation could find its way into the budget that’s due Friday. Senate Republicans, a comfortable majority of the chamber, have described the lifeline scholarship program as a “top priority” and could likely use it as a bargaining chip.

At least one Democrat in the Senate, however, has gone on the record about his support for the proposal. Sen. Tony Williams, D-Philadelphia, said during a recent committee hearing that “historic” investments in public education under former Gov. Tom Wolf did nothing to improve learning.

“My children in my district deserve purpose, hope, and direction,” he said. “Standing still is not an option.”

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