A voucher system would allow wealthy school districts to retain high quality local public schools—free, open to all, and democratically governed
By Bishop Dwayne Royster
For decades, we have known that Pennsylvania’s public school funding system does not serve poor children, Black children, and immigrant children, because those children are concentrated in communities that are not wealthy. Low-wealth public schools in Pennsylvania have $4,800 less to spend per student than their wealthy neighbors, while serving students with greater needs. This brand of American injustice has a familiar slant: Districts with the most students of color are the most deeply shortchanged with fault lines of inequity that shock the conscience.
On February 7, Commonwealth Court affirmed that this system is unjust, that it violates Pennsylvania’s state constitution, and that it must change. The Court acknowledged that some students performed at vastly different rates than others. But it also explained why: that our achievement gaps “demonstrate that the way the system is funded is failing its most vulnerable, traditionally underserved children.”
The findings of the Court were nothing new to parents of Black and Brown children who have lived with these realities for too long. But what was new was a Pennsylvania court ordering legislators that once and for all, the system had to work for all of us.
And yet, right at the very time that the General Assembly has been ordered to ensure all of us benefit from life-changing public educational opportunities, some in Harrisburg, paired with Pennsylvania’s richest man, have partnered in an attempt to begin undermining the system further, with a school voucher bill euphemistically titled “lifeline scholarships.” They seek to break the public school system, rather than providing quality public schools for all who have long been relegated to a separate, unequal system. This is a movie we have seen before.
These attempts also ignore reality. For example, a full-page plea in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Jeff and Janine Yass—the same Jeff Yass who may be bankrolling the dark money attacks on opponents of this new voucher program—suggests they seek to benevolently rescue some Philadelphia children from public schools they call “cages.” And in the face of a Court decision that found Philadelphia is a “low-wealth, high-need, high-effort, low-spending district,” with decades of deferred maintenance and insufficient staff, Mr. and Ms. Yass baldly assert that the District has the funding it needs, because private schools will be the answer.