School vouchers have always been controversial.

Critics see voucher programs as taking money from underfunded and inequitably funded public school districts and allocating it to private or religious schools. For supporters, vouchers are a “game changer” that would allow students to move out of failing public school systems.

This year, a voucher proposal took over state budget talks, becoming a major issue of contention between Democrats and Republicans. The particular voucher proposal, introduced in the last legislative session, was a $100 million public spending program to provide scholarships to eligible students in “low-achieving” public schools and pay for tuition, fees and special education costs to attend non-public schools of their choice.

Known as the Pennsylvania Award For Student Success scholarship program [PASS], or the lifeline scholarship program, the bill aimed to award scholarships between $2,500 and $15,000 based on grades or special needs requirements on a first-come, first-served basis. Students living in households with incomes below 250% of the federal poverty level, or $75,000 for a family of four, would be eligible under the program.

Gov. Josh Shapiro, who has been a supporter of what’s called school choice and state-funded voucher programs, ultimately pledged to line-item veto the proposal to end a budget stalemate. The House passed a $45.5 billion budget shortly after his pledge to veto the program. Republican leaders voiced their dissatisfaction with the decision, saying that Shapiro had betrayed a good-faith agreement on vouchers, and refused to reconvene the Senate for an obligatory signing of the budget.

Even though the voucher proposal appears to be dead for now, both advocates and critics of school vouchers believe this won’t be the last time it comes up. Shapiro has indicated that similar proposals may be introduced in the future.

Rtvsrece spoke with experts to break down the complicated narrative around school voucher programs, what makes them so controversial and the potential impacts on Allegheny County school systems if a new voucher program is implemented.

Advocates: Without vouchers, students are ‘trapped’

State Rep. Rob Mercuri, R-Pine, said the voucher program would not take any money from traditional public schools, but rather $100 million would be added to the budget to award the scholarships. 

“This really is a game changer because many students are on charter school waiting lists in our failing school districts or are just trapped in those failing school districts and can't afford to move out,” he said.

Roughly 250,000 students would have been eligible for the school voucher scholarships, according to an estimate by think tank Commonwealth Foundation; however, it's unclear how many of those students would benefit from it.

Although PASS scholarships would only be applicable to students from low-achieving schools, 25 of 43 low-achieving schools in Allegheny County are in Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS]. The Pennsylvania Department of Education determines which schools are low-achieving based on annual assessment scores. Nine other school districts in the county have low-achieving schools.

Many critics of private school vouchers object because vouchers can deplete public school funding, resulting in fewer resources for chronically underfunded systems.

Ira Weiss, solicitor for PPS, said he is concerned that such voucher programs would significantly increase the district’s transportation costs. PPS — already short of bus drivers — is required to transport students attending public and non-public schools if the schools fall within a 10-mile radius of the district boundaries.

Maura McInerney, legal director at the nonprofit advocacy organization Education Law Center, said if students leave public schools to attend private schools, those districts could see a potential decline in enrollment and, therefore, receive less funding from the state.

In February, the Commonwealth Court declared the state’s school funding system, which is based on student enrollment, as unconstitutional and ordered the General Assembly to ensure adequate funding for school districts. The budget reflects some increases, but critics pointed out that it is not enough for all school districts to be equitably funded.

“We must meet that mandate first before we will consider any of these additional programs that are specifically undermining what the court’s ruling and the mandate of our state constitution and law,” McInerney said.

Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum, head of school at Yeshiva Schools in Squirrel Hill, said voucher programs would give parents the ability to choose a school that is appropriate for their child. If the $100 million program is passed in the future, he said he expects it would draw more people from other states and cities to their school.

Can voucher programs serve all students equitably?

Critics have pointed out that a first-come, first-served program, such as the lifeline scholarships, ends up being a credit for people who can afford to spend money on private education instead of a lifeline for families with low incomes.

In Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program, for instance, 28% of voucher households had incomes below $50,000 in 2022-23, with lower-income participation declining and upper-income households increasingly tapping the program. Nearly 62% of those voucher students in 2022-23 were white and 9% of students were Black. 

“The outcome ends up being mostly wealthy, mostly white families take advantage of them and use them for the existing private school education that they were already giving their children,” said James Fogarty, executive director of advocacy group A+ Schools.

McInerney said voucher programs are inherently flawed because most families of modest income cannot afford full private school tuition.

Under the proposed $100 million voucher program, eligible students would annually receive $2,500 for half-day kindergarten, $5,000 in grades K-8, $10,000 in grades 9-12, and $15,000 if they have special needs, regardless of the grade. The average per-pupil spending in the state was about $19,410 in 2023, meaning that vouchers cannot fully meet the cost of educating a student.

“The controversy is real because the claimed fix doesn't seem to meet the actual need. It's not enough money,” said Fogarty.

Mercuri, who favors school choice, said giving out fixed amounts in the form of scholarships creates “jumpstart opportunities” for students rather than restricting them.

Critics: Voucher programs are inherently discriminatory

School vouchers have been criticized for being discriminatory toward students with special needs. Federal law mandates public schools to provide certain protections to those students. Private schools do not have the same requirements. 

McInerney said students with disabilities who go to private schools may be expelled or suspended and then move back to public schools without receiving the services they need.

Tamara Allen-Thomas, superintendent of Clairton City School District, said when private schools do not admit students with higher needs, that results in public schools with more students with those needs. With fewer resources and a shortage of special education teachers, she said that could severely impact a small district such as Clairton.

Rosenblum said while Yeshiva Schools has a wellness division that is focused on students with special needs, it is not the same as what public schools can provide for those particular needs. If the voucher program is passed, he said he believes they might receive more funding to get those resources.

Existing school choice programs lack transparency and accountability

At present, Pennsylvania has two big school choice programs — the Educational Improvement Tax Credit [EITC] and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit [OSTC]. The programs give tax breaks to corporations to fund private school scholarships. These programs have been called out for the lack of transparency and accountability to determine if students benefit from them. 

While the programs have been in place for over two decades, many questions remain unanswered, such as how many low-income students they have served, because the state prohibits collecting that information.

Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-West View, said the PASS scholarships would not require tracking of any academic data so there would be no way to measure and compare student performance. The only reporting requirement is to track how many people applied for and received the scholarships.

Voucher programs also tend to balloon in terms of eligibility and funding, she said. The EITC program was initially capped at $30 million in 2001 and has grown to $340 million in the last year. The OSTC program also increased to $125 million since 2012.

“Everything about the lifeline scholarship and the way it is structured is designed to expand rapidly,” Williams said.

While there is no automatic escalator in the proposed $100 million allocation, the amounts in each category, such as half-day kindergarten or K-8, are designed to escalate from year to year, she added.

Fogarty said the $100 million could be better spent on out-of-school-time programs, capital improvements in public school buildings, school leadership supports or early literacy investments.

“I would love to see more money invested in helping us think through, how do we make every school a place where kids want to be,” Fogarty said.

Williams said the state should push more money through the basic education funding formula and the Level Up program that would prioritize funding to the state’s 100 poorest districts, plus invest in early childhood programs to ensure returns in student achievement. 

“There is this real desire to like, let's give families better options. And I think that's right,” Fogarty said, “I just don't know that this is the solution that gets you there.”

Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at Rtvsrece. She can be reached at lajja@rtvsrece.com.

This story was fact-checked by Emily Briselli.

Know more than you did before? Support this work with a gift!

Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.

However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.

Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.

Lajja is the K-12 Education Reporter at Rtvsrece. Originally from India, she moved to the States in 2021 to pursue a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern California. Before...