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September 01, 2023

Pennsylvania Senate bills rekindle fight over Gov. Shapiro’s school voucher deal

Teachers group says the program interferes with meaningful ways to help public schools, particularly recruiting new teachers

The school voucher debate that stalled the Pennsylvania budget for more than a month this summer rekindled on Wednesday when the state Senate passed legislation authorizing the $100 million program.

On Wednesday, the Senate convened for a rare August session to pass a pair of fiscal code bills, including one that contains language to enact the voucher program. The bills also authorize additional funding for state-owned universities, larger reimbursements for ambulance companies among other programs. 

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But the bills did not include authorization for a number of Democratic priorities including the continuation of the popular Whole Home Repair program that was started last year using federal pandemic aid, Level Up funding for the state’s poorest school districts and state funding for public defenders. 

Once backed by Gov. Josh Shapiro, the voucher program would help some parents in the state’s most seriously underperforming school districts pay for private or religious school tuition. But in what some observers called the first serious gaffe of his administration, Shapiro negotiated with Senate Republicans to include the voucher program along with his other priorities, but didn’t have the support of Democrats who control the state House.

Although opposition to the voucher program among Democrats is not universal, House leaders killed the voucher bill and refused to call a vote on the Senate’s version of the budget until Shapiro promised in July to use a line-item veto to strike funding for the program.

The House passed the Senate version of the budget on July 5, but it did so without advancing the so-called fiscal code bills that authorize the state to spend money on new programs. 

Senate Republicans, State Treasurer Stacey Garrity and Shapiro’s administration all agreed that a sizable chunk of the budget would sit unused without the legislation. 

The Senate, however, returned to session on Aug. 3 to complete the last procedural step to allow Shapiro to sign into law what Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, described as 75% of the budget.  

The bills passed Wednesday did so largely along partisan lines, with Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, voting in favor of the voucher bill and the larger omnibus code bill, which Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, also supported. 

In a statement Wednesday, Shapiro’s spokesperson Will Simons said Shapiro has repeatedly called on leaders in the House and Senate to “to engage in meaningful conversations, find common ground, and get legislation through both chambers to his desk. 

“It is clear with [Wednesday’s] votes in the Senate that those conversations have not yet happened, and legislative leaders have more work to do to stop talking past each other and instead find common ground on the unfinished business before them,” Simons’ statement read.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said that while the omnibus code bill contains many programs Democrats support such as Shapiro’s universal school breakfast program and funding for a larger state police force, the harm it would cause to crucial programs including subsidized preschool led him to oppose the bill.

“On balance, they don’t rise to the level, to me, to support them given some of the concerns that I’ve raised and other members have raised as well,” Costa said. 

The Pennsylvania State Educators Association said Senate Republicans’ fixation on the voucher program was getting in the way of important programs to help public schools, such as stipends to pay student teachers as a strategy to remove financial barriers to entering the teaching profession.

“Public schools are struggling to place teachers and aides in classrooms and hire bus drivers to take kids to school,” PSEA President Rich Askey said. “We need to fund programs that address these problems. No Pennsylvanian can afford to let tuition voucher politics get in the way of doing that.”

The two code bills will now go to the House for consideration. The lower chamber is not scheduled to return to session until Sept. 26.

House Democrats were critical of Senate Republicans for using the code bills as an opportunity to renegotiate the budget. 

“Since House Democrats passed the Senate’s budget in July, we have repeatedly tried to work to arrive at an agreement. Unfortunately, the Senate Republicans’ actions today do not advance the conversation toward finalizing the state’s budget in its entirety,” House Democrats said in a statement. 

While the plan to return on Sept. 26 remains unchanged, the statement said leaders had not ruled out the possibility of an earlier return if an agreement on the programs omitted from the Senate’s code bills is reached.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.