D’ORSIE: Democrat Governor Promised Bipartisan Action On School Choice. Now, He’s Caved To Teachers’ Unions

(Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Joe D’Orsie Contributor
Font Size:

Campaign promises are a dime a dozen, but there was reason to be optimistic about Democrat Governor Josh Shapiro’s promise to provide an escape hatch for kids trapped in Pennsylvania’s worst government-run schools. The “Lifeline Scholarship” is a school choice program that creates a pathway for kids – often urban, minority students – to escape their low-performing public school and enroll in a better alternative. This $100M allocation, or 0.2% of Pennsylvania’s overall budget, seemed like a sensible, bipartisan effort that the ever-ambitious Shapiro could add to his resume. But as the final budget vote closed in, Governor Shapiro balked, capitulating to the leftist radicals of his own party in the PA House. In a suspenseful twist, Shapiro agreed to line-item veto his own lifeline promise in exchange for passing the balance of his budget.

To fully grasp the depravity of this flip-flop, let’s recount the promise, which turned out to be empty and will prove to be detrimental to kids who are trapped in failing government schools.

The Campaign Trail

While campaigning, Governor Shapiro pledged support for educational choice, namely the lifeline scholarship concept. In fact, until it was recently deleted from his campaign website, he was quite specific about his promise, echoing the pledge at several campaign speeches and meetings, which I detailed in this article in Center Square.

The Inaugural Budget Address

This promise to fund lifeline scholarships was repeated in Shapiro’s inaugural budget address. I know because I was there as a member of the PA General Assembly and stood in applause for the promise while my Democrat counterparts remained seated.

Reaffirmation on Fox News

Then there was his recent bold appearance on Fox News where he reaffirmed his pledge to save kids. “Every child of God deserves a quality education,” he said. 

Senate Agreement

This brings us to recent budget negotiations in Pennsylvania. Sidestepping the dysfunctional Democrat leadership of the PA House, Shapiro negotiated with Senate Republicans, ironing out a fiscally moderate budget that included a line item for Lifelines. This was a bipartisan effort, with Democrat Anthony Williams passionately defending lifelines on the Senate floor.

This was all very encouraging to me and the Pennsylvania Freedom Caucus, but even more so when Shapiro cancelled an appearance with the Pennsylvania Student Education Association (PSEA) – the state’s teachers’ union – just days before the House considered the Senate’s budget proposal. The PSEA, which dumped $775,000 into Shapiro’s campaign, has long been the loudest opponent to school choice legislation. So, we hoped the Governor would have the courage to stand up to the most powerful lobby in our state and fulfill his promise to kids. PAFC went to work, leading Republican messaging efforts in the PA House and going to battle on social media against the Left to provide Shapiro the cover to do right thing. What we got were empty words, broken promises, and a clever statement deflecting responsibility for his betrayal. The Pennsylvania Freedom Caucus was proud to have been supportive of the lifeline scholarship program from the start and was disheartened to see the governor capitulate to special interests at the sake of the commonwealth’s students.

It can’t be explained away that this makes Shapiro look weak. It also can’t ever be forgotten that special interest groups carried the day on this budget impasse, even when kids trapped in failing schools were at stake. But the golden opportunity here that Shapiro was not able to seize on was the tremendous victory he could have achieved with lifelines. Nearly 80% of Pennsylvanians support school choice in some format; if there ever was an easy bipartisan win that the aspiring Shapiro could have claimed as his own it was this. But he broke a promise and in so doing broke with a vast majority of PA voters. 

Ironically, Pennsylvania’s western neighbor, Ohio, passed school choice expansion the day before PA’s budget vote. Another neighbor, West Virginia, has done much of the same. Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Iowa, among others (you’ll notice several bellwether states in this list) have followed suit. Further, we now have enough data on school choice to definitively say that it works. A recent exhaustive report from EdChoice shows that of the 187 empirical school choice studies, 84% yielded positive results. What a political victory it could have been for Shapiro to power through the special interest muck and money to look back two years from now, presiding over a school choice success (not to mention saving kids and empowering parents). 

But rather than having the courage to elevate over his union donors, and the fortitude to get his own party on board, Shapiro balked, and now kids in underperforming schools will pay the price.

Joe D’Orsie represents Pennsylvania’s 47th Legislative District and is part of the state Freedom Caucus.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.