A mumbling and frail President Joe Biden joined Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro in Philadelphia last month to announce the speedy reopening of Interstate 95 after a bridge collapsed there. Standing at the podium, Pennsylvania’s self-described “get sh** done” governor looked to be an unstoppable political force. The moment underscored his pragmatic approach to governing, and voters loved it. A poll released days later showed his popularity in the swing state far outpacing that of the president. No doubt some viewers of the press conference wished the two men could exchange offices. Indeed, politicos in both Pennsylvania and D.C. have billed Shapiro as a likely future Democratic candidate for the White House. But the aura of selfless compromise that he had carefully cultivated would soon vanish in the face of a crisis that, for a Democrat, pales in comparison with infrastructure problems: angry teachers’ unions.
Around the same time that the governor was getting a pat on the back from Biden, he and Republicans in the State Senate were negotiating a budget deal that included the state’s first-ever K-12 education vouchers. The Lifeline Scholarship program would provide $100 million to fund approximately 13,000 private-school scholarships for students who attend a public school ranked in the bottom 15 percent statewide by performance. The voucher program made good on a promise Shapiro had extended during his 2022 gubernatorial campaign. Both he and his education secretary, Khalid Mumin, re-affirmed their support for the program during the budget negotiation process—so long as it didn’t affect public education funding. Republicans designed a program that met that requirement. “He had his priorities, we had ours, and we compromised,” Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward said at a press conference.
But the teachers’ unions went ballistic. In a letter to Shapiro and Mumin, several union heads expressed their “deep concern,” and called “any discussion” of giving families autonomy over education funding “unacceptable,” “distressing,” and “irresponsible.” Rich Askey, head of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said that he was “disappointed” in both men. Among the unions’ concerns was an unfounded claim that the vouchers would reduce public education funding, which they claimed would violate a recent court ruling. It was “outrageous that a bill that would siphon millions of dollars from public schools is even under consideration,” Jerry Jordan, head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said.
The unions’ claims are baseless, however. Shapiro’s deal with Republicans included a $567 million public education funding hike and ensured that voucher funding would come from a separate source than that used for the public schools. And the court ruling that the unions frequently cite doesn’t mandate state education spending hikes; it primarily condemns unequal funding distribution between school districts, thanks to the property tax system currently used to provide local funding.
But facts didn’t matter to the teachers’ unions and their allies in the legislature. House Majority Leader Matt Bradford, to whose campaign fund the PSEA donated $106,000 last year, rejected the budget deal that Republicans had negotiated with Shapiro immediately after it was passed. “The voucher issue is over,” he proclaimed. Many believed that Shapiro’s broad popularity could help him convince enough Democrats in the House, where the party holds a one-seat majority, to approve the deal. It would be the cherry on top of a radically cooperative start to his time in office. “The Governor informed the House Majority Leader that he and his team would negotiate directly with Senate Republicans to get the final deal,” Republican state senator Scott Martin said on Twitter. “Governor Shapiro’s responsibility was to get House Democrats on board with the deal he negotiated.”
The state instead went into the July 4 recess with no budget and Shapiro standing between obstinate House Democrats and hopeful Senate Republicans. Alas, the governor came back from the holiday break a new man, saying that, because he was “unwilling to hold up our entire budget process over this issue,” he would quash the voucher program using the line-item veto. He then went a step further, eliminating any pretense of cooperation by blaming Republicans for not “closing the deal” with House Democrats, a claim Republicans adamantly contest. Republicans are now using technicalities to delay the budget in the hope that Shapiro will change his mind.
“He failed spectacularly, and then gutted our agreement,” said Martin. “He took the first escape hatch he could find to avoid taking the blame for his failure to lead. It is unconscionable that the governor backed out of our negotiated agreement.”
The voucher episode is a reminder of two stubborn facts: first, many moderate positions will be off-limits for Democrats so long as government-sector unions hold so much power; and second, Republicans are increasingly weak in Pennsylvania politics.
Indeed, the strongest sign of the power of teachers’ unions in Pennsylvania was not Shapiro’s about-face but the silence of many Democratic House members representing districts where majorities favor school choice. From Philadelphia, House Speaker Joanna McClinton and Jordan Harris, the House Appropriations Committee chair, along with the rest of the House Black Caucus, went mute on an issue that had consumed their chamber for two weeks. Only when Shapiro had assured the program’s demise did Harris speak out. Even then, he dodged the issue to castigate voucher supporters for “using young people in my district” to “make political statements.” It’s not clear what comments he was referring to (his office did not respond to a request for comment). What is clear, however, is that most black Philadelphia parents likely support vouchers. Nationally, numerous polls have shown that upwards of 75 percent of black parents support school-choice options like vouchers. In Pennsylvania, a June Commonwealth Foundation poll found that 80 percent of black respondents supported a voucher-like proposal. (McClinton’s spokesperson also denied a request for a comment for this article.)
That Democrats backed the unions over their constituents is not surprising. “Democrats are going to stay in the pockets of the teachers’ unions no matter what happens and no matter how popular Shapiro is,” said Rob Brooks, vice president at the national political consulting firm Axiom Strategies and former executive director of the Pennsylvania Republican party. Anyone who crosses the unions “would likely face a primary challenge.”
Republican leaders in the State Senate did commendable work in negotiating a good-faith deal with a popular and honest-sounding new governor, but they are operating from a shrinking island of red. The unions and Democrats have undoubtedly noticed the GOP’s atrophy since Donald Trump’s takeover of the party. Republicans’ massive 39-seat state House majority in 2017 has disappeared, their 18-seat majority in the Senate in 2017 has been reduced by two-thirds, and the last two Trump-backed Republican candidates for governor lost by margins that one would expect to see in deep-blue Illinois or California. If Trump is again nominated in 2024, the suburban swing voters who dominate Pennsylvania elections and despise him may see to it that no Republicans are left in positions of power in 2025. In such an electoral environment, school vouchers would be a distant dream.
School-choice activists and Republicans have lambasted Shapiro for betraying his word, and rightfully so, but the cold political truth is that the governor probably won’t pay any political price. Indeed, most Pennsylvania voters will likely still believe him to be the uniquely competent politician whom they watched reopen I-95. He could hurt himself only by making an enemy out of the Democratic Party’s most powerful special interest group, especially if he has his eye on an eventual White House run. As he said when announcing his intent to veto the voucher program, to him the whole controversy is “small ball”—sounding like a man who may already have his mind on bigger things.
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