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House Democratic leaders rally in Philly against school vouchers: ‘What are they going to do for the 99% left behind?’

House Majority Leader Matthew Bradford said the South Philadelphia High reflected “the impact of literally decades of disinvestment in public education.”

House Majority Leader Matthew Bradford speaks after touring South Philadelphia High School Monday, the first stop on a statewide “Save Our Schools" tour amid a battle with Republicans over school vouchers.
House Majority Leader Matthew Bradford speaks after touring South Philadelphia High School Monday, the first stop on a statewide “Save Our Schools" tour amid a battle with Republicans over school vouchers.Read moreMonica Herndon / Staff Photographer / Monica Herndon / Staff Photograp

As Pennsylvania’s budget impasse drags on, House Democratic leaders visited South Philadelphia High School Monday, calling for more investment in deteriorating public school buildings — and less focus on private school vouchers.

After a tour from Philadelphia school district officials pointing out boilers at the end of their lifespans, asbestos-containing floor tiles, and a temperature-control system that requires overheating some classrooms to compensate for inadequate heating in others, House Majority Leader Matthew Bradford (D., Montgomery) said the high school reflected “the impact of literally decades of disinvestment in public education.”

“There’s so much attention being brought by those who want to support private schools, who want to say that’s the solution,” Bradford said Monday, addressing reporters outside the school in the first stop of a “Save Our Schools” tour.

Flanked by supporters holding “Say No To Vouchers” signs, Bradford said: “When they take the 1% of kids out of schools like this, what are they going to do for the 99% of kids that are going to be left behind in these buildings?”

Pennsylvania’s $45.5 billion spending plan for the year that began July 1 hasn’t taken effect amid a battle over efforts by Republicans to institute a voucher program. The proposal, initially supported by Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro, would spend $100 million to give money to families in the attendance boundaries of low-performing schools to send their children to private school.

The money was part of the spending plan passed by the Republican-controlled Senate, but the Democratic-controlled House wouldn’t agree to pass it until Shapiro pledged to veto the voucher spending.

Even though both chambers have passed the budget bill, it still needs to be signed. Senate Republicans, angered by Shapiro’s about-face on vouchers, haven’t returned to Harrisburg to do so; Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) said last week that the Senate would return in August, though she didn’t specify when.

And Republicans are still pushing for vouchers.

“Instead of focusing on saving our schools, House Democrats should join with Republicans in both chambers in saving our students,” said House Republican spokesperson Jason Gottesman, who accused Democrats of “doubling down on an unconstitutionally broken public school system to the exclusion of transformational change and a child-first, family-focused education experience.”

Bradford, who also cited this year’s landmark Commonwealth Court decision finding Pennsylvania’s school funding unconstitutional, said Democrats welcomed the conversation about helping students in poorer communities.

House Democrats called for a surge in education spending following the court decision; the spending plan awaiting final signature includes more than $700 million in additional funding, but is less than what they sought.

“Recently it’s become the cool thing to say, ‘every child of God,’” Bradford said, in an apparent reference to a phrase used by Shapiro and Republicans in favor of vouchers. “‘Every child of God’ means every child, whether they’re in public school, private school, charter school — every child.”

He and Democrats are seeking to push that message this week — with other stops planned in Reading, State College, and Pittsburgh, “so that it is very clear Pennsylvania House Democrats’ No. 1 priority is funding public education,” said House Speaker Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia).

Inside South Philadelphia High School, lawmakers listened as the district’s facilities director, Jeff Scott, described the building’s deficiencies.

“We are basically running on borrowed time with these boilers,” Scott told the group that descended into the high school’s warm basement to see its aging equipment. (The boilers in question were installed in 1989 and have a 30-year expected lifespan, Scott said.)

The district’s school buildings require more than $40 million in heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning work, and $21 million in electrical work, Scott said. (”We can’t even plug an air-conditioner in, or a computer, without a plug going out,” William Sax, an African American history teacher at South Philadelphia High, told lawmakers. “All of the kids here are watching you.”)

Overall, the district — where asbestos contamination closed six school buildings last year — has capital needs estimated at $5 billion.

This year’s education budget doesn’t include dedicated facilities funding, though Senate Republicans have said they’re planning to appropriate $125 million for school safety and remediation.

On Monday, Bradford said he was “hopeful that conversation can be had.”

Of the budget battle, Bradford said, “I think one of the positives that’s come out of this is there’s a new conversation about the quality of education our children are being provided.”