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School vouchers are major part of conversation at Harrisburg town hall

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Nearly 120 residents gathered at Goodwin Memorial Baptist Church in Harrisburg on Tuesday evening for a town hall meeting that focused on education.

The event was run by Black Pastors United for Education, led by founder Rev. Joshua Robertson of The Rock Church in Harrisburg, who said education is the start to a better community.

Robertson spoke to a packed church and a panel of four speakers with differing views on education. The key topic of the night was school vouchers, also referred to as the Lifeline Scholarship Program and PASS Scholarships, which Black Pastors United for Education supports.

School vouchers have become a key issue in the last two years’ budget talks, with Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro siding with Republicans in the state House and Senate to try to pass the program. Vouchers provide a sum of money for select students in low-performing public schools to attend a private school of their choosing.

The nearly two-hour-long town hall was a unique setting for vouchers to be discussed and was in stark contrast to the halls of the state Capitol building and on campaign trails.

The four panelists were Charles Mitchell, president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative organization that advocates for school vouchers; Dauphin County Treasurer Nick DiFrancesco, a Republican running for state Senate; and Democratic state Reps. Justin Fleming and Dave Madsen.

Robertson said the goal of the night was to tell the public what education policies mean — specifically proper funding of public schools — in addition to having a conversation about vouchers, charter schools and cyber charter schools. Time ran out before the subject of charter schools could be discussed.

Robertson asked the panelists if vouchers would support an operation like the one The Rock Church organizes. They accept students enrolled in a public cyber-charter school into their church from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays and hire church members to oversee academic operations and extracurricular activities. He said it costs about $5,500 per child, a bill fronted by the church and its donors. Vouchers could provide $10,000 per child, with a $100 million cap.

The vouchers haven’t been codified yet, so panelists agreed that there’s currently no way to know if The Rock Church’s organization would be supported.

Fleming and Madsen both disagree with vouchers and voted against them in last year’s budget talks.

“If we’re going to add another $100 million to education, why not put it into special education or career and technical institutions,” Fleming said. “If we’re going to have this conversation we need to be really serious because private schools can choose who they accept.”

His thoughts were echoed by Madsen, who raised concerns about transgender students and students of different faiths, and how private schools can expel students based on religious or other policies. DiFrancesco and Robertson said it’s a parent’s right to choose what their child is exposed to.

“There has to be a distinction made between discrimination and a family’s right,” DiFrancesco said. “What you want your children exposed to or not exposed to absolutely must be respected.”

Many of those who attended wanted clarification on what the vouchers would entail — clarification that the panelists and the Pa. government don’t necessarily have yet. Even if the $100 million allocated for vouchers passes in the budget, the language on how it’s disbursed would have to be passed separately in code bills.

Three attendees spoke against vouchers, saying they were concerned about students having to test to get into private schools.

“How does it work when you want to take my money in vouchers someplace else?” Curtis Terrain, a Middletown resident, asked. “We want to build what we have. I don’t want to send my kids someplace else.”

Only one other resident had the chance to speak, asking where education money would come from. Fleming pointed out the $7 billion rainy day fund in Pennsylvania as well as higher-than-expected revenue streams.

All panelists agreed that public schools were not properly funded, matching a February 2023 Commonwealth Court decision. The solution to the issue was not as simple.

Fleming said he’s in favor of historic education funding currently included in the potential budget and is in favor of getting rid of the “hold-harmless” policy, which says districts cannot receive less funding than they did in the prior year. DiFrancesco wanted to stop the discussion of finances and turn instead, to policy.

“I think we have to stop at the discussion of dollars,” DiFrancesco said. “If we’re going to increase the amount of money we’re spending we better have clear goals and clear outcomes.”

Madsen focused on what he called the “three major pillars” in children’s lives — their at-home situation, neighborhood and school district.

“I’d like to have all three conversations happening simultaneously,” Madsen said. “From a state perspective, it’s important to fully fund the Department of Human Services and create a strong partnership with more social workers in the schools.”

There wasn’t a clear solution presented by all panelists, but the focus of the discussion was on simply educating the public about what their options are for education.

“Tonight shows you how much this open dialogue is needed,” Robertson said. “All of us in here need to do our homework on these issues and find what we fundamentally believe so we’re voting on convictions, not party affiliations.”

The Black Pastors United for Education ended the panel by presenting a $10,000 grant to the Kappa Omega Chapter of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, which works to serve the Harrisburg community. There isn’t another town hall meeting scheduled, but Robertson said he would speak with the 12 pastors in attendance about hosting another.

The organization will host a press conference at 2 p.m. on June 11 in the rotunda of the state Capitol building. Robertson and other leaders will present a letter to the governor asking for education reform that includes school vouchers.

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