School choice advocates fear Pa. Gov. Josh Shapiro is flipping on education promise

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro
Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro | Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Advocates for school choice have raised concerns that Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro has flipped on the issue despite his campaign promise to support it, which proponents argue is only depriving the state’s children of educational opportunities. 

Charles Mitchell, president of the free-market Commonwealth Foundation, contended in an opinion piece by Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn that “Josh Shapiro’s moderate image is a myth—so far.” Some pundits have floated the idea that the Pennsylvania governor is a moderate politician who could be a potential replacement for President Joe Biden. 

Mitchell highlighted the governor’s veto of a school-choice proposal in 2023 despite promising during his campaign that he would support such initiatives. The Commonwealth Foundation president also pointed to comments Shapiro made earlier this year about Lifeline Scholarships, which he called “unfinished business.”

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“But he’s not showing any leadership, exerting any pressure, or spending any political capital to pass them,” Mitchell stated. 

“As of now, Josh Shapiro is a perfect sub for Joe Biden—a moderate-talking, left-governing politician from the nation’s largest swing state who is failing to do the work of his office,” he continued. “If he changes course this budget season and delivers for kids, he could become the kind of statesman America needs.”

In an interview with The Christian Post, Erik Telford, senior vice president of public affairs for the Commonwealth Foundation, said that the organization would like to see Shapiro deliver on the promises made during his campaign by supporting the Lifeline Scholarships program. 

The program, also known as the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success, would offer scholarships ranging from $2,500 to $15,000 per year for students attending the lowest-performing schools in the state. As Telford noted, some of the best-performing schools in Pennsylvania are only a few miles from the schools that are seen as some of the worst in the state.

“It’s a very stratified system where people either have the means to live in a well-off community with a great public school, or people are economically trapped in a school district that they can't afford to leave that doesn't even offer a passable education to the kids that are stuck in those schools,” Telford said. 

According to the 2023 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, more than half of the state’s fourth graders and nearly 75% of eighth graders cannot perform at grade level. Nearly half of Pennsylvania’s fourth and eighth graders cannot read at grade level, according to the report.

Fourth-grade English language arts proficiency dropped to 51.8% from 52.2% the previous year. Eighth-grade scores in the same subject also declined, going from 55.6% in 2022 to 52.7% in 2023. As the Commonwealth Foundation noted in 2023, the decline in students’ performances occurred despite the 2023-2024 Pennsylvania state budget increasing state support for public schools to $15.5 million. 

Opponents of school choice, however, argue that allowing students to transfer from a lower-performing school to a higher-performing one takes money away from public schools. Other critics of school choice have argued that it is racist and tied to the country’s history of segregating schools by skin color. 

Telford told CP that some school voucher programs operate in a way where the “money follows the kid,” but the Lifeline program does not do that. The Commonwealth Foundation vice president explained that the Lifeline program adds an extra $100 million to a special fund intended to help send students to another school. 

Regarding the accusation that school choice programs are racist, Telford highlighted data from the Commonwealth Foundation that found a bipartisan group of Pennsylvania voters, including black and African American voters, believe Shapiro should honor the promise he made to support scholarships for students attending low-performing schools. 

According to the Commonwealth Foundation poll, 73% of survey participants support “establishing scholarships for low-income students in Pennsylvania’s worst performing (bottom 15%) schools that would help pay for tuition to another K-12 school.”

Samantha Kamman is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: Follow her on Twitter: @Samantha_Kamman

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