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Senate Education Committee revives school voucher program at center of last year’s budget battle • Pennsylvania Capital-Star

A bill that would revive the school voucher program that House Democrats killed during last year’s budget debates passed the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday with bipartisan support. The program, called the PASS grant, would give most students in the state’s lowest-performing school districts up to $10,000 to attend private schools.

The PASS program was initially supported by Gov. Josh Shapiro during partisan debates over the state budget last year, but Democrats in the House of Representatives opposed it. While the version of the budget passed by the Senate included funding for the voucher program, House Democrats refused to approve it unless Shapiro agreed to veto the item. Ultimately that’s what happened.

The Senate Education Committee’s action Tuesday will almost certainly revive that fight.

Public school advocates have long opposed school vouchers, saying the money would be better spent supporting the state’s public schools, especially in light of the recent court ruling that found that the state’s public schools the state was unconstitutionally underfunded.

“Pennsylvania’s system for funding public schools is so inequitable that the Commonwealth Court has ruled that it violates the state Constitution,” said Aaron Chapin, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association. “Instead of sending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to private schools, we should focus on the public schools that educate 90% of Pennsylvania’s students.”

Supporters of the program note that, unlike school voucher programs in other states, the PASS grant would not take money from public schools that recipients would otherwise have attended.

Senator Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia), the only one The Democrat on the committee voting in favor of the legislation noted that he also supports a massive increase in public school funding. But he also expressed skepticism that any amount of money could help students stuck in the state’s lowest-performing public schools.

“You can’t look past the obvious,” Williams said. “There are parts of Pennsylvania, both rural and urban, that are underserved by the public experience and the billions of dollars we send or don’t send to them will not solve that. We can’t find teachers.”

Both Democrats and Republicans on the committee acknowledged that the bill that was introduced essentially marked the beginning of a battle over what to include in this year’s budget.

“I will not be in the room when the budget deal is being negotiated behind closed doors,” said Sen. Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny), the committee’s minority chair and a staunch opponent of directing state money to non-public schools. “There is no trade in vouchers.”

When asked whether Shapiro still supports the program, a spokesperson pointed to his budget speech earlier this year.

Shapiro said during the speech that he still supports some form of voucher funding for students in low-performing school districts, to be spent on “extra tutoring, books and computers, or yes, to another school.”

Shapiro added: “the Senate passed a bill last year that included important elements of that, and it is something that I support and consider unfinished business.

The 2025 budget must be approved by both the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-controlled House before being signed by Shapiro.