School Choice & Charters

Why Jay-Z Is a Key Figure in the School Voucher Debate

By Brooke Schultz — June 11, 2024 | Updated: June 12, 2024 6 min read
Jay-Z arrives at the premiere of "The Book of Clarence" on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024, at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. Jay-Z is putting his weight behind an effort to fund private school vouchers in Philadelphia. The entertainment mogul’s Roc Nation announced it is funding a campaign in June 2024 to drum up support for the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success.
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Updated: Adds comment from the American Federation of Teachers and that costs of Roc Nation’s outreach effort are still being calculated.

Rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z has entered the debate over establishing a school choice voucher system in Pennsylvania, a proposal that has caused a months-long budget feud in the politically divided legislature. The push to create private school vouchers has drawn some unlikely allies, including the state’s Democratic governor—a move at odds with much of his party and public school advocates.

And now, Team Roc, the philanthropic arm of Jay-Z’s entertainment company Roc Nation, is putting its support behind the school voucher measure as the state legislature buckles down to pass a budget, due by the end of the month. Jay-Z’s philanthropy has launched a multi-faceted marketing and awareness campaign in Philadelphia to make sure families know about the efforts to provide taxpayer-funded private school options.

The shadow of a historic court decision from last year calling the funding system unconstitutional also looms large and is complicating the debate over vouchers.

The legislation would establish a program using public funds—potentially up to $300 million this budget cycle, depending on what the legislature ultimately approves—for Pennsylvania students in low-achieving schools based on state testing metrics. Students in the eligible low-performing schools would have access to state subsidies to attend other schools, like private and religious schools. The proposal has been denounced by the state’s largest teachers union.

Team Roc, which drew criticism after announcing its campaign to support vouchers, is hosting a series of “dine and learn” events in Philadelphia throughout the month, to build “local and city-wide support in Philadelphia for educational opportunity and freedom of choice,” according to its website.

Roc Nation is supporting outreach through dining events, billboards, digital trucks, and a website explaining the legislation, said Dania Diaz, the managing director of philanthropy at Roc Nation.

She rejected arguments that the funds would take away from Pennsylvania’s public schools, and noted that the organization supports public education, too, but “we also know that not all public education systems are efficient.”

“Yes, the public education system needs a lot more support in various ways but we do know it’s going to take some time to fix,” she said. “Why not offer the option for parents to choose a possible solution for their child where they’re not in a system where proficiency is so low, where they can potentially thrive in another system, in another educational setting that is more fitting for them today and right now?”

School choice vouchers are growing in popularity, with at least 29 states and the District of Columbia having at least one private school choice program, including Pennsylvania, according to an Education Week analysis. Of those, 12 states have at least one private school choice program that’s universally accessible to K-12 students in the state.

The fight for vouchers in Pennsylvania

Critics of the proposed program argue that it diverts funding from public schools, particularly salient in Pennsylvania, where a court ruled in 2023 that how the state funds its public schools is unconstitutional. A report, approved by the state’s Basic Education Funding Commission, indicated that the state was underfunding districts by $5 billion.

Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro has repeatedly argued that the state needs to fund its public schools adequately, but has simultaneously put his weight behind the voucher legislation.

He’s a political outlier. In the past two years, legislation expanding or rolling out school choice and voucher systems has been in red states, said Josh Cowen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, whose book on school vouchers is forthcoming in September.

Even with Shapiro’s backing, a protracted fight between the GOP-controlled Senate and the Democratic House ultimately led to Shapiro line-item vetoing the provision to get the budget to the finish line last year.

Still, Shapiro called the vouchers “unfinished business” in his budget speech earlier this year, and called on Democrats to consider alternatives like vouchers.

Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, a Republican, said the caucus remained hopeful the legislation would pass.

“The PASS Scholarship Program is one of a kind and was passed by the Senate not once, not twice, but three times,” he said in a statement. “The governor said he supported it, and this year we remain optimistic that he will back his words up with actions, and we will achieve vouchers in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

A spokesperson for the House Democrats did not respond to an email.

Chris Lilienthal, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said that the focus should be on fixing the state’s public funding system.

“If we really want to ensure every student in Pennsylvania has access to a high-quality education regardless of ZIP code or socioeconomic status, we must equitably fund the public schools that serve those students,” he said. “That is the solution we should be talking about.”

Where does Jay-Z fit in

Jay-Z, whose real name is Shawn Carter, isn’t the first big name to put muscle behind the voucher system in Pennsylvania. Last year, the budget scuffle drew in several supporters, including musician and Pennsylvania-native Meek Mill, alongside former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Diaz said that Roc Nation has had a “longstanding” relationship with Philadelphia, through the two-day music festival Made in America and Carter’s involvement in Philadelphia-based REFORM Alliance, which seeks to reform probation and parole. Education is one focus for Team Roc.

How much Roc Nation is spending on the outreach effort is still being calculated, Diaz said.

Diaz said that it was “mind-boggling” how little the community knew about the legislation. As part of the effort, they are collecting signatures from attendees to press legislators on the bill.

“It’s interesting because everyone here cares about education but they’re centering different things,” Diaz said. “We want to center the children and their families which are getting lost in all these critiques.”

Concerns over vouchers

Cowen, a critic of private school choice initiatives, said that vouchers have shown significant negative declines in student achievement when scaled up to statewide, universal programs.

Often, he said, students who benefit from voucher systems are students who were already enrolled in private schools, or were homeschooled prior to programs being expanded. Opponents of the legislation say taxpayer dollars go toward schools that lack transparency, or that schools can discriminate and ultimately pick who does enroll.

There’s no reason to believe Pennsylvania would be any different, he said. States that have attempted to restrict voucher programs to public school students haven’t succeeded, he said.

“What’s insidious about how the Pennsylvania thing is being marketed is this idea that all you have to do is be eligible for a voucher and you can save your child’s life and leave failing Philadelphia schools,” he said. “There’s nothing in the legislation that requires them to take you.”

Nationally, the efforts have drawn scrutiny, especially from public school educators.

Randi Weingarten, president for the American Federation of Teachers, also highlighted concerns about discrimination, student achievement, and who ultimately attends private school.

“Instead of spending billions on vouchers in Philly, we should be strengthening and investing in public schools so all kids can thrive,” she said in a statement. “Jay-Z has released some killer albums, but when it comes to promoting a state funded voucher programs, we agree with our Pennsylvania affiliates in saying ‘this ain’t it.’”

Advocates for the policy argue that it can improve education access across the board, even for the students who remain in public school.

Ed Tarnowski, policy and advocacy director for EdChoice, a nonprofit proponent of school choice, said he was excited that a celebrity like Jay-Z was joining the conversation.

“We hope that it does help raise awareness so parents know what is being considered to increase their educational options,” he said.

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