HARRISBURG, Pa. – School choice and fully funded public education can coexist in Pennsylvania, said the Democratic nominee for governor, Josh Shapiro.
It’s a policy position that strays from his own party and aligns more closely with Republicans and his opponent in the race for governor, state Sen. Doug Mastriano.
But Shapiro was clear in stressing that his backing of school choice hasn’t undercut a priority campaign pledge: Fully funding Pennsylvania’s public schools.
“This is not an either-or,” Shapiro said Monday in a meeting with CNHI Pennsylvania reporters and editors. “I think this is a both-and. I think we can invest in public education and empower parents to put their kids in the best opportunity for them to succeed, and I don’t think we have to harm public schools in the process.”
“It’s what I believe,” Shapiro said. “I’ll be a champion of public education, as I have throughout my career, and I’m also going to be a champion for children as I have throughout my career.”
Asked about funding for school choice, Shapiro said “it would be additional funding than what’s in the state budget right now.”
What’s in the budget right now is historic spending on public education in Pennsylvania. The Wolf administration and the Republican-controlled General Assembly agreed on a spending plan that boosted K-12 education by an extra $1 billion in 2022-23, including an additional $100 million for special education and $250 million in supplemental funding for the 100 poorest school districts.
Last month, Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s attorney general, confirmed his position on school choice to PennLive. His campaign website was updated in early September to reflect his support.
“Josh favors adding choices for parents and educational opportunity for students and funding Lifeline Scholarships like those approved in other states and introduced in Pennsylvania,” the website now reads.
Shapiro received the endorsements of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), American Federation of Teachers and Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.
Chris Lilienthal, PSEA assistant director of communications, said Shapiro’s position on school choice won’t disrupt the union’s endorsement.
“PSEA recommends Attorney General Josh Shapiro for governor because he’s a pro-public education candidate and because he shares the vast majority of PSEA members’ priorities,” Lilienthal said, calling Mastriano a potential “disaster” for public education.
“It’s definitely not unusual for candidates and the people who support them to have different views on a few issues. While we disagree with Attorney General Shapiro on Lifeline Scholarships, we are in complete agreement on his top priorities for public schools: Fully funding public education, reducing standardized testing, and addressing the school staff shortage.”
Mastriano, who voted in favor of the budget, says on his campaign website that he’ll “make sure public schools are well-funded” and that he’d work with the state legislature to enact school choice.
He’s voiced support for a public school voucher program named the Lifeline Scholarship Program that would allow students to transfer out of poorly performing schools and leave with most of their state subsidy to pay tuition and other costs at private schools, with tutors or other approved alternatives to public schools.
The bill narrowly passed the House in April along party lines and is still pending in the Senate, with less than a week’s worth of legislative session days remaining.
Mastriano also has said that he’ll eliminate local school property taxes, funding that provides the bulk of most districts’ revenue, without offering an alternative to supplement lost funds.
He’s floated dropping per-pupil spending – the combination of state, federal and local funds – to $10,000 to $15,000, down from the $19,666 average in the 2020-21 school year.
Shapiro, too, cites Lifeline Scholarships as a potential option, but he’s adamant that choice doesn’t disrupt current education funding.
“We need to fully fund our public schools in Pennsylvania. We need to drive new dollars into the Fair Funding Formula,” Shapiro said, citing an equity initiative that distributes funding to account for a school’s student population growth and local poverty.
Shapiro also pledges to invest in vocational-technical education and to put a mental health counselor in each of Pennsylvania’s public school buildings.