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Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, a rising political star, crosses partisan school choice divide

Oct 5, 2023, 9:04 PM

FILE - Pennsylvania's Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro speaks at the state Capitol, Jan. 17, 2023, in H...

FILE - Pennsylvania's Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro speaks at the state Capitol, Jan. 17, 2023, in Harrisburg, Pa. Shapiro — a first-term Democrat seen by his party as a rising star nationally — gave his backing to a Republican-backed school voucher proposal over the summer. School choice advocates say that makes Shapiro unique among Democratic governors and could mark an evolution in traditional alliances on school choice politics. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — In the partisan politics of education funding, the “school choice” movement has pressed states for decades to send taxpayer money to private and religious schools and long had to concentrate its efforts on states where a Republican governor was an ally.

That suddenly changed over the summer.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro — a first-term Democrat seen by his party as a rising star nationally — forcefully put his weight behind a Republican-backed proposal to send $100 million to families for private school tuition and school supplies.

Shapiro would later back down in the face of House Democratic opposition, but his support has raised Pennsylvania’s profile in the national voucher debate and given advocates optimism that the program will eventually become law.

With the backing of a major GOP campaign donor and now Shapiro, a private-school product whose near-landslide win in the battleground state has fueled talk of his national political prospects, vouchers are at the forefront of the state’s political agenda.

A win for voucher advocates would mark an evolution in traditional alliances on school choice politics and could set Shapiro apart from other Democratic contenders emerging on the national scene. Previously, Democratic governors who had backed school choice measures had done so in compromise deals with Republican-controlled legislatures.

The signal Shapiro sent came through loud and clear to supporters of the program.

“What made Shapiro unique is his desire to lead on it,” said Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Indianapolis-based EdChoice.

Vouchers have long been viewed in stark partisan terms: Democrats and public school allies say they drain critical resources from public schools. Republicans and school choice advocates say they give freedom to families who may not like their local public schools.

At $100 million in a state where public schools spend more than $35 billion a year, the Pennsylvania proposal was viewed by some as largely symbolic. But both sides say its passage in Pennsylvania would open the door to a larger program eventually.

As many as 16 states have voucher programs, according to groups that study the programs, and they vary in size, with some becoming widely available after big expansions in the past year.

To some, Shapiro’s support should be viewed as a potential presidential candidate in 2028 positioning himself as a moderate who bridges political divides.

“I see that he understands the political value of school choice, and I thought, ‘My goodness, he’s going to pave his way to the White House by embracing this particular issue,’” said Matthew Brouillette, a prominent voucher advocate in Pennsylvania.

Public views about vouchers are complicated — and do not necessarily reflect the partisan divide in statehouses, or even the usual assumptions.

The school choice movement has long been a coalition of Roman Catholic school advocates, libertarians and private school boosters, as well as Black educational empowerment proponents – giving the cause traction with some big-city Democratic lawmakers.

An AP-NORC poll last year found that Americans are divided — 39% favor, 37% oppose — on whether to give low-income parents tax-funded vouchers they can use to help pay for tuition for their children to attend a private or religious school instead of public schools.

Democrats were similarly divided.

“It’s a nuanced picture in terms of public attitudes that don’t totally follow partisan divides that are seen across other issues,” said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.

The division reflects similar polls over the past two decades — but support drops when people are told vouchers siphon money from public schools.

Shapiro insists he only supports a voucher program that doesn’t do that — something public school advocates dispute, saying every voucher dollar could have gone to public schools.

The voucher debate in Pennsylvania came at a particularly charged time: a court had ruled only months earlier that the state’s system of school funding had for decades unconstitutionally discriminated against the poorest districts.

That had motivated public school advocates and Democrats to demand billions more for the poorest public schools, a quest that Shapiro has said he supports.

Shapiro’s familiarity with private schools, meanwhile, is borne of experience. He attended a private Jewish school, his children attend the same school and his father is on the school’s board.

But some observers connect his interest in vouchers to the influence of Jeffrey Yass, a securities trading billionaire who is one of the GOP’s top national donors and the biggest donor to Republican campaigns in Pennsylvania.

School choice is Yass’ top issue in Pennsylvania.

“In Shapiro’s case, I think it demonstrates the long arm and pocketbook of Jeff Yass,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican operative and marketing consultant.

Yass’ campaign donations in Pennsylvania filter through groups that put $13 million into supporting a would-be Republican rival to Shapiro who nonetheless lost in last year’s GOP primary. Yass did not ultimately support the GOP nominee whom Shapiro beat.

Shapiro has received a relatively tiny sum from those groups: at least $135,000 out of nearly $90 million he’s reported raising for races for governor and attorney general since 2015.

But even if Yass never gives another dime to Shapiro’s campaigns, keeping Yass on the sidelines may also be a potent strategy to weaken Republican opponents.

Shapiro first broke ranks with Democrats last year when, during his campaign for governor, he said he supported the Republican-sponsored voucher bill.

Still, as governor, Shapiro didn’t talk about vouchers until June, while in the midst of intense closed-door budget talks. During an appearance on Fox News, he was asked about the voucher proposal and said “every child of God deserves a shot.”

“And one of the best ways we can guarantee their success is making sure every child has a quality education,” Shapiro said.

Those fluent in the history of school vouchers could think of no other Democratic governor who had embraced them.

“The last prominent Democrat to really champion school vouchers was like in Milwaukee in 1990,” said Joshua Cowen, a Michigan State University professor of education policy, referring to a Democratic state lawmaker in Wisconsin. “Every other champion in state government for these programs has come from the Republican Party.”

Within days, Shapiro had struck a budget agreement with Senate Republicans that included the $100 million voucher program — blindsiding Democratic lawmakers, teachers’ unions, public school advocates and school boards.

The budget deal, however, fell far short of what Democratic lawmakers had sought for public schools, adding fodder to their argument that vouchers drain resources from public schools.

“We weren’t prepared to have this conversation when we have this massive problem here,” said House Education Committee Chairman Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh.

Teachers’ unions — some of Shapiro’s strongest supporters in his campaign for governor — mustered support against the proposal from across labor, including AFSCME, SEIU, the AFL-CIO and building and construction trades.

In the end, House Democratic opposition prompted Shapiro to agree to veto the $100 million program from wider budget legislation — drawing angry recriminations from Republicans and school choice allies.

Yass, in a letter published by The Wall Street Journal, accused Shapiro of flip-flopping, siding with “radical education activists,” throwing poor children “under the bus” and “cowering before his union financiers.”

The episode has left an uneasy feeling among both voucher opponents and advocates. In an interview last month with WURD radio in Philadelphia, Shapiro shrugged off the fallout.

“I recognize that there are some in my party that don’t agree with that,” Shapiro said, “but my view is we’ve got to be working to empower parents to put their kids in the best possible position to succeed.”

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Follow Marc Levy at twitter.com/timelywriter .

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Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, a rising political star, crosses partisan school choice divide