Pennsylvania is a state where there are still Democrats who call themselves “moderates.” But no state has provided a better example of the difference between calling yourself moderate and actually showing some independence from the Democrats’ leftist activist base.
For example, the state’s Sen. Bob Casey Jr. claims to be both “pro-life” and “pro-gun rights” while opposing even the mildest restrictions on abortion and supporting even the most draconian limits on the ability of Americans to exercise their Second Amendment rights. But Casey — the son and namesake of one the last real pro-life major Democratic officeholders, Bob Casey Sr., who was governor of Pennsylvania from 1986 to 1994 — is nothing compared to his father’s latest successor, current Gov. Josh Shapiro.
Shapiro ran for governor in 2022 claiming to be a supporter of school choice, and up until last week he remained an enthusiastic backer of a bill that would create “lifeline scholarships” that could be used to pay tuition and education-related expenses for students in the worst-performing public schools in the state. The bill was a compromise in which Republicans had been forced to accept something far short of a true school choice plan that would extend the right to opt out of the government system across the board. It also protected the public schools, including those 380 that fell into the category of the bottom 15 percent in the state, from being actually forced to compete with private and religious institutions by guaranteeing that their funding wouldn’t be cut no matter how many of their students fled for a better education elsewhere.
This builds on an existing scheme that allows private and religious schools in Pennsylvania to benefit from tax-deductible donations to specific scholarship programs for the needy, which is helpful but nothing like a true voucher plan.
But as the state budget negotiations came down to the nitty-gritty, Shapiro did as all Democrats, whether they call themselves progressives or moderates, always do: He bent his knee to the teachers unions, which in Pennsylvania, as in the rest of the country, are a crucial source of campaign funding and organizational muscle. Since the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) consider any funding that goes to other schools a threat to their state monopoly and political power, they made it clear that even the watered-down voucher bill was unacceptable.
That’s why Shapiro flip-flopped and announced he will use a line-item veto to ensure that school choice is dead in Pennsylvania despite the fact that a plurality of Pennsylvanians clearly supported it and see the desperate need to do something to help children trapped in failing public schools.
Shapiro’s Record of Betrayal
That Shapiro would behave in this manner is no surprise to those who have followed his career. A lifelong politician who has never worked in the private sector except in a part-time capacity, his reputation as a trickster goes back to his time in the state assembly when, as a junior Democratic back-bench member, he used an impasse over which member of his party would be speaker at a time when they had a one-vote majority to strike a deal with the GOP to help elect one of the Republicans to lead the body. In return, Shapiro was named deputy speaker.
Despite that betrayal, Shapiro kept his seat and eventually moved on to other posts as Montgomery County commissioner and then state attorney general, before carefully maneuvering himself into position to run unopposed for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2022. That allowed him to use the old Clintonian tactic of triangulation and to run to the center, something made easier by the victory in the Republican primary of Doug Mastriano, who was widely perceived as being on the far right. Shapiro won the governorship easily with a 600,000-vote margin.
Unions Won’t Budge
The AFT and the PSEA are savvy enough to let Democrats stray off the reservation when it comes to election promises. But when it comes to measures that would enable children in the worst districts to escape from the grip of the government monopoly, even if it won’t cost public schools a penny, these unions are not willing to budge one inch from their absolutist position on school choice.
That means it’s back to the drawing board for Pennsylvania Republicans who bought into Shapiro’s claims of moderation. That Shapiro is himself the product of a private religious education and sent his own children to the same schools is just another example of the hypocrisy of liberals who talk about their concern for the poor but consign other people’s kids to the worst schools while relying on their own greater resources to ensure that their own families avoid them. Much like former President Barack Obama, who helped end a program that allowed poor children from the District of Columbia to attend the elite Sidwell Friends School with his own daughters, Shapiro isn’t just a hypocrite. He’s one without a sense of shame.
That such Democrats act as if the children of the poor are not made in the image of God like their own is nothing new. But rarely are we given such a clear example of the raw political power of the government education lobby as we’ve just seen in Pennsylvania. Shapiro isn’t willing to risk a primary challenge funded by the AFT and the PSEA from the left, even in a state where he could reasonably hope that centrist voters might back him against someone more in tune with the congressional “squad.”
School choice in Pennsylvania will have to await the day when the GOP is back in control of both houses of the legislature as well as the governor’s office. But the main conclusion to be drawn from this sorry episode is that neither public opinion nor the private ambitions of individual politicians matter when it comes to the teachers unions’ will to power.
As we learned during the Covid lockdowns and school closures, they rule the Democratic Party with an iron fist. School choice or efforts to roll back critical race theory and sex and gender ideology in schools cannot succeed with Democrats. If these toxic ideas and bad policies are to be defeated, the only way to do so is to beat the party that is wholly owned by the teachers unions.