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Democratic Governor Captures National Party’s Mood in Vetoing School Choice Expansion

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 18, 2019 3 min read
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Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania has vetoed a bill that would expand the state’s private school choice program, a move that in part reflects increasing opposition in the Democratic Party to programs that grassroots activists and voters believe divert funding away from traditional public schools.

Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed House Bill 800, which would have doubled money available for the Educational Improvement Tax Creditto an annual amount of $210 million. The program provides tax credits for donations to organizations that provide scholarships to private schools. The money can also be used to support prekindergarten programs.

In his veto message, Wolf said the current tax-credit scholarship program “lacks accountability and oversight.” He also rhetorically questioned why the state would increase its funding when there are bigger priorities for K-12 in Pennsylvania.

“We have public schools that are structurally deteriorating, contaminated by lead, and staffed by teachers who are not appropriately paid and overstretched in their responsibilities. Tackling these challenges, and others, should be our collective priority,” the governor said in his message.

One of the defining elements of Democratic politics under President Donald Trump has been their opposition to publicly administered programs that support private school choice. Beltway Democrats, including some of those seeking the party’s presidential nomination in 2020, have relentlessly attacked U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for her support for vouchers in particular, although vouchers work differently than tax-credit scholarships. DeVos has frequently been accused of seeking to privatize public education; her argument is that students should have access to the educational settings that suit them best regardless of where it takes place and who delivers instruction.

In case you’re wondering, Pennsylvania law permits the legislature to override a governor’s veto through a vote of two-thirds of members in each chamber. While four Democrats in the legislature voted to expand the program, Republicans who sent the bill to Wolf fall short of controlling a two-thirds majority in either chamber. (Pennsylvania is one of eight states where a Democratic governor works with a GOP-controlled state legislature.)

National supporters of school choice took notice of Wolf’s decision. U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., then weighed in to criticize Wolf’s decision and accused him of putting politics over sound education policy:

The average scholarship amount in the Pennsylvania program was $1,815 in fiscal 2018, according to state data. WHYY in Philadelphia noted in February that the state does not track academic outcomes of students who receive the scholarships. However, supporters of the EITC say the demand for it is growing and that the cap on the program should be adjusted accordingly.

Wolf was elected in 2014, and re-elected in 2018, on a platform of increasing spending on public schools. State education spending has gone up recently, although there are disputes as to how equitable or adequate those increases are. In another reflection of the Democratic Party’s priorities for K-12, this year Wolf called for increasing the mininum state teacher salary to $45,000 a year. Democratic presidential candidates such as Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have called for big nationwide boosts to teacher salaries.

He’s been skeptical of private school choice programs for some time: Last year, for example, he opposed legislation to create education savings accounts.

Photo: Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with governors on “workforce freedom and mobility” in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Thursday, June 13, 2019, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)