Pennsylvania’s ongoing budget stalemate has brought school choice and education funding into the foreground, and these issues took center stage last week during a Senate Education Committee field hearing in Reading. Parents, educators, and officials gathered to express their concerns and aspirations for the Commonwealth’s education system while shedding light on the complexities surrounding student outcomes and the present barriers to academic success.
The Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) scholarship program is a focal point in this debate. This program would provide scholarships ranging from $2,500 to $10,000 (up to $15,000 for special education) to low-income students attending underperforming public schools. Advocates of the program argue that these scholarships would offer families the freedom to pursue alternative educational options, such as charter or private schools if they believe it better suits their child’s needs.
Education policy and funding have been central to this year’s budget negotiations and ostensibly prompted the breakdown in talks between Senate Republicans and Gov. Josh Shapiro earlier this month, resulting in the current impasse. While the Senate approved a budget with $100 million allocated for the PASS program and a substantial increase in basic education funding, Governor Josh Shapiro has promised to line-item veto the appropriation for PASS scholarships, after previously expressing support for the program.
One advocate who spoke in favor of PASS scholarships at the hearing was Sara Torres, a mother from Reading, who passionately expressed the urgency of expanding learning opportunities in Pennsylvania. During the hearing, Torres said that she hopes her son will someday become a lawyer but voiced concerns about the quality of education within Pennsylvania’s third-largest school district. While acknowledging some exceptional instructors, Torres stressed that the overall education system required improvement, making the PASS program a potential ‘lifeline’ for families like hers.
However, not all are convinced that school choice alone can fully address the scope of challenges facing public education. Senator Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia), a PASS program supporter, pointed out that greater choice may not address the more fundamental barriers surrounding academic achievement. Instead, Senator Williams argued for a total overhaul of the public education system, emphasizing the need for more equitable state support and echoing a state Supreme Court ruling earlier this year which found Pennsylvania’s system for funding public schools unconstitutional.
Dr. Jennifer Murray, Superintendent of Reading School District, also vocalized a need for greater funding during the hearing. Dr. Murray highlighted staffing shortages which make it challenging for the district to maintain smaller class sizes and provide differentiated instruction for students at various achievement levels.
While the House has concurred with the Senate-passed budget, procedural rules dictate that the Lieutenant Governor must sign the final agreement in the presence of the Senate during legislative session. The Senate adjourned on July 5 (without this step being completed) and is not due back in Harrisburg until September 18.
On top of finalizing the budget, lawmakers must also reach an agreement on various code bills that are passed in conjunction with the budget and dictate how funding is allocated. Additional budget-related bills (such as funding for state-related universities) remain similarly unresolved.