School voucher proposal moves in Pa. Senate ahead of budget talks

May 8—HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Senate Republicans renewed the school voucher debate as state budget negotiations loom next month, using their majority position to advance a proposal for a public school alternative with broad opposition among Democrats, union leadership and public education advocates.

A bill proposing the creation of the Pennsylvania Award for Students Success Scholarship Program, or PASS, was amended before moving out of the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday on a near party-line vote.

Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia/Delaware, joined Republicans in support. He gave an impassioned defense of school choice during Tuesday's committee meeting while also expressing support for public education, pledging to also vote for proposed funding increases for public schools.

"We're in crisis, the house has burned down and we're sitting in here today talking about what water to put the fire out with," Williams said.

The bill is now available for consideration by the full Senate. Republicans hold the voting majority in the upper chamber.

The bill language is similar to past proposals, formerly known as Lifeline Scholarships, with the exception of notable changes in Williams' amendment that targets the scholarships to children living in households at or below 250% of the federal poverty level — $78,000 in income for a family of four, for example.

PASS ultimately stymied progress on the 2024 state budget. Due annually on June 30, the budget wasn't adopted until August and wasn't completed until language authorizing certain spending was approved in December.

The reintroduction of the scholarships comes ahead of budget negotiations in June and sets up another legislative conflict that could impact progress on the 2025 spending plan.

PASS Scholarships were introduced by Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair/Fulton/Huntingdon/Juniata/Mifflin, through Senate Bill 795. The bill's current version would award funding to income-eligible students from low-achieving schools, that is, those finishing in the bottom 15% of the prior year's statewide standardized tests.

There are 381 individual schools hypothetically eligible under the bill's terms. Shamokin Area Elementary School is the only one in Valley counties, according to a list provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

"Parents should have the opportunity to choose the best opportunity for their child, not a ZIP Code," Ward said Tuesday

Students who would apply and be awarded funding could use the money for tuition to private and parochial schools along with related costs and special education services.

High-schoolers would be eligible for $10,000 while special education students would be eligible for $15,000. Most elementary students would be eligible for $5,000 except for those in half-day kindergarten who would be eligible for $2,500.

Sen. Carolyn Comitta, D-Chester, ticked off a litany of unions, including trades and education, along with school leadership associations for administrators and elected school board officials who oppose the bill, arguing that it takes funding away from public schools.

Ward said the program would be funded by a separate appropriation and wouldn't impact potential public school subsidies and related spending.

Sen. Michele Brooks, R-Crawford/Lawrence/Mercer, said she'd support an amendment that would require the scholarships be audited just as public school funding is audited.

Adamant in opposition, Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, the committee's minority chair, said PASS won't be a viable bargaining chip during budget negotiations.

"I'm saying this to the people in this room, I'm saying this to my colleagues on the other side of the aisle and in the House, and I'm saying this to the person who sits in the governor's chair: There is no trade for vouchers," she said.