Harrisburg − June 29, 2023 − Senator Lindsey M. Williams released the following statement today, following the Senate’s passage of HB 479:
I oppose tonight’s passage of HB 479 as amended because I support our public schools and because I believe in the separation of church and state. But this legislation creates a new program that sends public, taxpayer dollars to private and religious schools.
We cannot allow the first action this legislature takes in response to the Commonwealth Court’s decision declaring our public education funding system unconstitutional to be the creation of a program that sends $103.7 million public tax dollars to unaccountable private institutions. Only a few short months ago, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania ruled that we as the legislature are not meeting our Constitutional obligation to provide a thorough and efficient system of PUBLIC education. And the Court reaffirmed that decision that we are unconstitutionally underfunding and inequitably funding our public schools just last week.
The goal of legislation like this – whether it’s a so-called “Lifeline Scholarship” or the “Pennsylvania Award for Student Success Scholarship Program” – is to push vulnerable students and families into private and religious schools where they check their Constitutional rights at the door. Our students lose nearly every right afforded to them when they enroll in a private school. Private schools can and do discriminate against disabled kids. Private schools can and do refuse to admit LGBTQ+ students. Private schools can and do refuse to accept kids because they are poor or struggle academically. They are free to discriminate against students, parents, and staff however and whenever they want. And let me be clear – religious schools have lobbied me directly in my office in Harrisburg to keep their ability to refuse to admit or retain anyone they want. And I would be remiss to not connect the efforts of these same organizations to block the increase in the Statute of Limitations that have caused irreparable harm to generations of religious students and families.
The bill before us today is a part of the long-term plan to defund, destabilize, and destroy public education. Voucher programs only came about after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision so that white families could attend segregated private schools and avoid integration, all on the taxpayer’s dime. Rebranded as “school choice” in the 1990s, current data in states with voucher programs show that these programs only exacerbate racial segregation.
The creation of the “Pennsylvania Award for Student Success Scholarship Program” creates another system of education that holds one set of schools to a different set of standards. PRIVATE schools aren’t required to hire certified teachers, nor are they required to evaluate those teachers. For private schools, accreditation is optional. Private schools don’t have democratically elected school boards that are accountable to the public. Only our PUBLIC schools continue to be subject to these necessary accountability measures.
This new privatization program lacks any accountability. The same standardized tests used to determine our underperforming schools do not apply to the private schools that our students will be attending. We lose the ability to track student outcomes when they set foot in a private school. Supporters of this bill cannot purport to care about the success of students if there are no ways to tell if a student is actually succeeding in a private school.
This legislation does not require the Auditor General to audit this program. In states where voucher programs like this have been enacted, we see rampant fraud, waste, and abuse of taxpayer dollars. The Auditor General has already made it clear that their office does not have the time or interest to perform routine, required school audits. How will they find the time to perform optional audits on these individual family accounts? The answer is, they won’t. There won’t be any oversight over how this money is spent.
Regardless of what you call this bill, it is what it is: a brand new program that takes $103.7 million public taxpayer dollars and diverts it to unaccountable private schools. And it is only a foot in the door. In other states that have created voucher programs, they have started small and then over a short number of years have grown between 300 to 800 times the starting amount. We have seen the same thing here in Pennsylvania with EITC – a program that started at $25 million has ballooned to $340 million.
I’m disappointed that this bill passed the Senate tonight by a vote of 29-21. I implore our House colleagues to hold the line for our students, our public schools, and the property taxpayers who will foot the bill for this legislation, and vote this bill down as soon as it gets to their side of the building.
For video of Senator Williams’ remarks, please visit Senator Williams Remarks against School Privatization Legislation (HB479 Amended) – Senator Lindsey Williams.