Education advocates say safeguards against discrimination are needed in Pa. school voucher programs – Pennsylvania Capital-Star
With Gov. Josh Shapiro and state lawmakers pushing to expand Pennsylvania’s taxpayer-funded school voucher programs, an education advocacy group is calling for safeguards to protect students from discriminatory private school admissions policies.
Pennsylvania’s Educational Investment Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs provide more than $400 million that students in poorly performing public school districts can use to pay tuition at private and religious schools.
The program was designed to create alternatives for families who believe the public education system is not adequately serving their children.
But since the EITC program’s inception in 2001 and the later addition of OSTC, schools approved to accept vouchers have used the money to advance discrimination against students on a number of fronts, Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, said.
“Vouchers create the illusion of school choice,” Spicka said “Private and religious voucher schools can and do engage in discrimination and then refuse to enroll students even if their family is eligible for a voucher.”
Education Voters of Pennsylvania on Tuesday presented the results of a survey of 159 schools on the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s list of institutions approved to accept OSTC vouchers. The organization found every school included in the survey has policies that could be used to discriminate against students.
They include requirements to sign religious faith statements, provide a reference letter from a pastor and regularly attend a “Bible-believing” church to qualify for admission.
The same faith statements contain explicit anti-LGBTQ+ language that would allow students who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, or have family members who are, to be expelled.
Some religious schools state that becoming pregnant or having an abortion is cause for expulsion or require students who become pregnant to undergo Christian pregnancy counseling.
Many private schools state that they will not accept students with mental or physical disabilities and set academic standards that require students to submit test scores, grade point averages, and other evidence of performance to be admitted, Education Voters of Pennsylvania found.
Some schools also require families to submit information about whether a student has received special education services or been expelled from school in the past. Such policies don’t necessarily result in discriminatory practices, Education Voters of Pennsylvania said, but they allow school officials to choose who to admit based on whether the school is the “right fit.”
While private and religious schools are permitted to place such restrictions on which students they admit, Spicka said using taxpayer money to pay tuition to schools that accept some students but not others does not help Pennsylvania meet its constitutional obligation to provide a thorough and efficient education to all.
“It is schools that are choosing students, and these vouchers are funding discriminatory schools’ ability to choose the students that they want to enroll,” Spicka said.
Shapiro has said he supports an expansion of the voucher programs, touting Lifeline Scholarships on the campaign trail last year. During budget negotiations this spring, Shapiro struck a deal with Republicans who control the state Senate to include $100 million for a program rebranded as the Pennsylvania Achievement Student Scholarship.
He later used a line-item veto to eliminate the funding when he signed the budget after Democrats in control of the state House killed the legislation to authorize the program.
In a statement Wednesday, Shapiro’s spokesperson said Shapiro believes every child deserves a safe and welcoming place to learn and grow.
“He supports ensuring parents have the opportunity to put their kids in the best position for them to succeed. He also knows that Pennsylvania taxpayers demand accountability from their government, especially when it comes to education spending,” spokesperson Manuel Bonder said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Department of Community and Economic Development, which administers the tax credits, said in a joint statement that public and private schools may participate in OSTC if they meet the state’s compulsory attendance requirements; meet the requirements of the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, or national origin; and notify the Education Department annually of their intent to participate.
The Education Department’s role in the program is to identify low-achieving schools and provide a list of schools that accept students from the program, the statement said.
Proponents of school vouchers say they open doors that would have been closed to many students.
“The EITC program has provided for a transformative experience for thousands of students who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to attend a high-quality school, which in many instances, assures that historically disadvantaged students can attend college and beyond,” Gary Niels, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools, said.
Niels said the organization’s accreditation standards deliberately promote standards of equity, inclusion and belonging of all students. “Schools that do not meet these standards would not be accredited by PAIS,” Niels said in an email.
Spicka said Education Voters of Pennsylvania is making recommendations to state policymakers to ensure that the voucher programs provide opportunities for all students and that they don’t detract from traditional public schools.
In February, Commonwealth Court President Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer ordered Shapiro and the state Legislature to reform the way Pennsylvania funds public education. The order was the culmination of a yearslong legal battle between parents, educators and Republican lawmakers that led to Cohn Jubelirer’s finding that the current system puts students in less wealthy communities at a disadvantage.
Testimony in the trial and a subsequent report showed that Pennsylvania needs to spend an additional $6.2 billion on public education to comply with the Constitution. Shapiro and lawmakers must ensure the system is fully funded before increasing funding for vouchers.
Spicka said lawmakers must also pass explicit anti-discrimination protections in the EITC and OSTC voucher laws and in all state laws that govern private schools that choose to accept state voucher funding.
Citing a 2022 Independent Fiscal Office report that found little is known about the students who benefitted from vouchers or their educational outcomes, Spicka said lawmakers and Shapiro need to enact legislation that mandate data collection to allow for a thorough examination of Pennsylvania’s existing voucher programs
“It is just patently unacceptable that Pennsylvania has spent more than $2 billion in tax money on these school vouchers without any understanding of who’s benefited from the vouchers, or the impact that the spending has had on student achievement,” Spicka said.
Originally published at www.penncapital-star.com,by Peter Hall