I was honored to have been invited to speak at the House Democratic Policy Committee hearing on the Basic Education Funding Commission Report at the Chester County Intermediate Unit on Tuesday, March 5, 2024.

I chose to focus my remarks on private school vouchers. Specifically, I addressed how school vouchers, which are deeply woven into the MAGA and Moms for Liberty agenda, fund bigotry and advance the agenda of Christian nationalists to undermine public education and our democracy.

In the short video below, Representative Ismael Smith-Wade-El asked, “Do you feel that the outcomes of these sort of funding pass through and voucher programs pose a risk to the lives of transgender young people?”  

My answer was yes. Tax dollars fund and build the capacity of religious schools and churches they are affiliated with to promote their Christian nationalist and anti-LGBTQ+ agenda. This translates into real harm. You can watch the full clip below.

As you know, Governor Josh Shapiro has stated that he will sign a school voucher bill if it reaches his desk.

If you cannot understand Governor Shapiro’s support for sending millions of additional dollars to religious schools that discriminate against students and promote hate, click HERE to fill out this form and write to him. Please ask him for a response and if you get a response, please share it with me. I would love to know what his answer is.

Below please find the testimony that I read at the hearing.  Click HERE to watch the full hearing.

In his budget address, Governor Shapiro said, “It’s ridiculous that here in Pennsylvania two women can get married on a Sunday and fired from their job on a Monday, just because they’re in love.”

What Governor Shapiro left out is that the children of this couple could get kicked out of their private school on Tuesday. And that tax dollars are used to support this discrimination.

Discrimination is a feature, not a bug, of school voucher programs. Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) school voucher programs direct $470 million tax dollars into private and religious schools that can, and do, explicitly discriminate against students for just about any reason they choose.

The words “private school” evoke an image of ivy-covered college prep schools. And Pennsylvania certainly has plenty of these, especially in Philadelphia, the collar counties, and other urban and suburban areas.

Today I would like to provide you with a window into a different kind of private school that vouchers fund in Pennsylvania. These are religious schools, which in many regions of the state, are often the only option for families other than their local public schools.

And I want to make it very clear that there is no way for lawmakers to pick and choose to fund only one type of private school with tax dollars. Voucher dollars support all private and religious schools in the commonwealth.

School vouchers are historically deeply rooted in segregation. Today they are deeply woven into the MAGA and M4L agenda. Vouchers fund bigotry and advance the agenda of Christian nationalists to undermine public education and our democracy.

A report Ed Voters wrote last year documents that voucher schools can and do expel students who become pregnant or refuse to attend Christian pregnancy counseling, as evidenced by this policy from the Archbishop Wood High School in Warminster, which states,

“The school principal will attempt to handle each matter in a spirit of Christian compassion and forgiveness, but when public scandal, the student’s refusal or failure to participate in counseling or other circumstance warrants, the school principal may dismiss or take other appropriate action.”

Voucher schools expel students who have had an abortion as we see in this policy from the Harrisburg Diocese, which states,

“In keeping with the Church’s laws and teachings concerning human life, any student who promotes, procures, actively assists, or performs an abortion shall be dismissed unless the Principal, after examining all aspects of the case, in consultation with the Secretary for Education, determines that there are mitigating circumstances.”

Voucher schools can and do refuse to admit students who have disabilities. Take, for example, the Al Aqsa Academy in Philadelphia, which has this statement on its website:

“The Academy is not equipped for teaching students that might need special education or might have behavior problems. Students in need of special care are referred by parents or school personnel to the local public school district.”

Voucher schools can and do refuse to admit students based on their religion. For example the Linville Hill Christian School in Lancaster County requires on its application for admission that “One or both parents are born again Christians.”

Voucher schools can and do expel students for being LGBTQ+ or simply for being supportive of people in the LGBTQ+ community, as we see in this policy from a school in Lancaster County.

“Thus, DAYSPRING CHRISTIAN ACADEMY retains the right to refuse enrollment to or to expel any student who engages in sexual immorality, including any student who professes to be homosexual/bisexual/transgender or is a practicing homosexual/bisexual/transgender, as well as any student who condones, supports, or otherwise promotes such practices (Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:27).”

The Dayspring Christian Academy, which has received $3.4 million in voucher funding through EITC/OSTC since 2014, is bringing in Tucker Carlson as the keynote speaker for their annual fundraiser on April 20th. This is the same Tucker Carlson who openly defends authoritarianism and recently said, “Leadership requires killing people, sorry.”

This fundraiser is an event that has been historically attended by students.

This leads us to the issue of what religious voucher schools teach students.

In Pennsylvania, religious schools do not have to be accredited or abide by meaningful curriculum standards.

In a forthcoming report, the Keystone Research Center does a deep dive into the curricula that is taught in voucher schools in the commonwealth. The report finds that some religious schools have curricula similar to public schools. But a significant number teach creationism as science and present the Bible as literal truth in history and other subjects.

One example is the 148 Pennsylvania schools in the Association of Christian Schools International (ASCI) (a SO that received about $9 million in OSTC and EITC dollars in 2022-23). ACSI describes its schools as having “the highest belief in biblical accuracy in scientific and historical matters.”

Examples of the publishers used in religious voucher schools in Pennsylvania include Bob Jones University Press, A Beka Book, and Accelerated Christian Education (ACE). These publishing houses were founded in the 1970s by fundamentalist Baptist curriculum providers who rejected the concept of secular education. Below are teachings from current books being used in Pennsylvania’s religious voucher schools.

  • Environmentalism is presented as a religion in conflict with Christianity. Climate change is dismissed as either not scientific or not necessarily caused by human activity. There are references to positive effects of climate change such as opening up the Arctic for oil exploration.
  • History textbooks are grounded in a literal reading of the Bible as a timeline of human history, identifying races and nations by their biblical role. Africans are described as descending from Noah’s son Ham. The narrative of the “curse of Ham” historically used to provide biblical justification for slavery and segregation, is still present in both A Beka and BJU Press textbooks.
  • The hardships of slavery are downplayed. Slavery and the treatment of Native Americans were supposedly mitigated by their conversion to Christianity.
  • Capitalism is promoted as biblically mandated. Recessions and economic problems are portrayed as the result of government interference, labor unions, taxes, and regulating agencies, including the FDA and EPA.

And the list goes on and on in the report.        

We know from study after study from other states that vouchers have a catastrophically negative impact on student academic achievement.

We know that vouchers fund bigotry and discrimination.

We know that vouchers strengthen Christian nationalism and weaken democracy.

Private school voucher programs that give tax dollars directly to families, such as the PASS or ESA programs that have been proposed in Harrisburg, are very dangerous.

Limited voucher programs such as these can be expanded with the stroke of a pen in the future to strip out accountability and include universal eligibility, exploding costs for taxpayers, gutting funding for public schools, and creating endless opportunities for waste, fraud, and abuse. We only need to look at what is happening in Ohio, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, and other states to understand what we will eventually face in Pennsylvania if a new voucher program such as the proposed PASS or ESA voucher program is enacted.

And the pressure from school privatization organizations on lawmakers to expand an existing voucher program that gives money directly to families will be exponentially stronger than the current pressure you are experiencing to implement one in the first place.

We are deeply grateful that House Democrats have been the firewall that has protected the Commonwealth from the implementation of a new school voucher program.

We most strongly urge you to stand your ground on this issue and continue to reject any new voucher proposal in these budget negotiations and to instead ensure that every new dollar invested in education in the 2024-2025 state budget will be invested public schools that will educate every student who walks through their doors using academic standards set by the state.

Click HERE to read the comments I submitted to the committee, which include comments about cyber charter schools.

Click HERE to watch the full hearing.