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By Marc Stier
Pennsylvania Republican legislators support a voucher program they say is meant to help a small number of students who attend schools they claim are failing. (They don’t say that those schools are also severely underfunded.) However, they and their supporters, including billionaires Betsy DeVos and Jeffrey Yass, have made no secret that their ultimate goal is to replace our public schools with a system of private schools financed by vouchers.
It is doubtful that such a plan meets the requirements of the Pennsylvania constitution. When the education clause was added to the Pennsylvania Constitution in 1873, it specifically required funding of “public schools.” And changing the words to “public education” in the Constitutional revision of 1967 does not alter the import of the phrase.
Could a voucher plan be designed to meet the two goals for public education held by the framers of the Pennsylvania Constitution? The first was to provide an equal opportunity for all students to make the best use of their talents and abilities, not just to benefit themselves but to benefit our economy and democracy. The second was to ensure that every student was prepared to take part in our representative government, beginning with a firm understanding of our country’s ideals.
What would a voucher system crafted to attain these goals look like?
First, all private schools that accept vouchers would be required to teach the basics of American political institutions and ideals and our ideals of freedom and democracy for all.
Second private schools would have to be prohibited from discriminating against students based on political ideology, income, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and disability status.
Third, any voucher system would need to ensure that every child has an equal opportunity to get a comprehensive education, even though some families have a greater financial ability to pay for tuition than others. We also know that children growing up in poverty, and those who are English-language learners, need more resources to get an equal education.
This would require some combination of the following policies:
- A sliding scale that provides a larger voucher for parents with lower incomes and English-language learners.
- Given spending at the best public schools in the state exceeds $25,000 per student and tuition at the best private schools in the state often exceeds $40,000, voucher amounts would have to be substantially higher than found in any current legislation to make those schools broadly accessible.
- A cap on private school tuition or a requirement that any private school that accepts vouchers take them as full payment for students who come from families below a certain income threshold.
Fourth, to ensure that schools meet these requirements—and to stop the graft, fraud, and waste that afflict voucher-funded private schools wherever the system has been implemented—private schools would be required to file extensive reports on their practices and the quality of the education they provide.
And, fifth, there would have to be guarantees that voucher levels and the funding for them would increase with inflation in education costs. Failing to do that would ensure that access to the best and most expensive schools in the Commonwealth would increasingly be limited to families with higher incomes.
None of these provisions are in the voucher proposals Republicans put forward this year. Their current plan gives a voucher of fixed amount to all students that is far below the cost of the best schools and only caps the income of the families eligible to receive vouchers at Gov. Shapiro’s insistence.
It’s also clear that most of the elite and religious private schools would reject rules and regulations designed to create an equitable education system. Almost none are willing to open their doors to all. Few of them welcome disabled students. And many insist on teaching ideas that conflict with well-established science, such as creationism, or that are inimical to the ideals of freedom and democracy.
While the Republicans’ current voucher plan is small, the experiences of other states such as Arizona show us once a small voucher program is instituted, state funding will increasingly be diverted to vouchers that help a small number of kids, while draining public schools of funding.
The failure of the Republicans to put forward a voucher plan with the features described above, along with their unwillingness to fund the current education system at higher levels, calls into question their commitment to meet the goals for public education set by our constitution, an adequate and equitable education for all.
Instead, we should assume that the real goals of Republicans and their billionaire supporters in Pennsylvania and elsewhere are shown not just in their manifestos but in the policies they support. Their aim appears to be to destroy our public schools, reduce taxes on the rich, and give those with high incomes vouchers to send their kids to high quality private schools while the kids of everyone else get a second rate education. That is a path to a permanent economic and political elite, not the political and economic democracy sought by the framers of our constitution.
Marc Stier is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Policy Center, a progressive think-tank in Harrisburg. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s commentary page.
[This article was updated at 11:02 a.m., Monday, Sept. 18, 2023 to fix a typo.]
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