Pennsylvania’s bipartisan school choice push hits snag

A push by a Democratic governor and a closely divided General Assembly to expand private school choice in Pennsylvania stalled this week. But some hope remains for bipartisan expansion of educational options.

Gov. Josh Shapiro announced this week he would use his line-item veto to excise funding for a proposed private school scholarship program from the budget approved by lawmakers.

The move was designed to win support of the narrow Democratic majority in the House. It succeeded in convincing them to pass a budget. But it angered Republicans, who control the Senate.

In a statement, Shapiro made clear that approving the scholarship funding would have been pointless, because legislation creating the program had not passed. A House committee voted down a bill creating the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success Scholarship Program in a party-line vote last week.

“[House Majority Leader Matt] Bradford requested a legal memo from the Office of General Counsel, which confirmed that without enabling legislation setting up this program, my Administration legally cannot implement it,” Shapiro said.

Spotlight PA reports that this might not be the last of the legislative maneuvering around school choice in the Commonwealth’s budget debate. Lawmakers are already scrambling as they enter a new fiscal year without a new spending plan fully finalized. And Republicans still have leverage.

Lawmakers still have to approve code bills — complicated pieces of omnibus budget-enabling legislation that dictate state policy on things like taxing, spending, and education.

And, in a potentially more immediate problem, Pennsylvania’s Constitution requires that the presiding officers of each chamber sign off on all bills before they head to the governor’s desk. This is usually routine. However, the state Senate, now miffed by Shapiro’s reversal over vouchers, isn’t scheduled to be back in Harrisburg until September.

In a statement, Senate GOP leaders Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) and Joe Pittman (R., Armstrong) said Shapiro had “decided to betray the good faith agreement we reached.”

They added, “the General Appropriation bill is not the final step in the budget process. The Senate will continue to await legislative action by the House on the remaining budgetary components, to see what House Democrats, with the slimmest majority, are able to advance.”

No matter how the immediate drama plays out, Shapiro’s statement indicated he will continue to seek support for private school choice among his fellow Democrats, and that he had secured their commitment to revisit the issue in the future. He also noted pointedly that Republicans could play ball on other priorities, like criminal justice reform or raising the minimum wage, that passed the House but died in the Senate.

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BY reimaginED staff