American K-12 students are falling behind, and fast. The 2022 nation’s report card revealed historic setbacks in math and reading for students across the country. But even before the US Department of Education released these dismal results, data indicated many American children, especially those from low-income families, weren’t receiving the quality education they need and deserve.
In Pennsylvania, according to 2021 statewide assessments, 78 percent of eighth graders were not proficient in math and 47 percent were not proficient in language arts. That report showed learning loss from the pandemic devastated Pennsylvania children, but the effects were even more severe for minority students.
All children deserve a quality education that sets them up for college, a career, and life. One way to ensure families have access to more quality education options is through Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). ESAs are state funds that parents can use to pay for a variety of education expenses, including private school tuition, books, and even tutoring. Several states have adopted ESA programs to empower parents to make the best educational choices for their children.
The Commonwealth Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy organization in Harrisburg, believed an ESA program in Pennsylvania could help struggling students access a better education that puts them on the path to success. In 2021, Commonwealth launched a campaign to encourage state lawmakers to adopt the Lifeline Scholarship Program, a type of ESA. The program allows students in the bottom 15 percent of the lowest-performing schools to access funds that help them pay for education expenses, including tuition to attend another school.
A big piece of Commonwealth’s campaign—and key to their success—was bringing in new audiences and talking to them about the benefits of parental choice programs like the Lifeline Scholarship. In 2021, Commonwealth hired David Hardy, cofounder of Boys’ Latin School of Philadelphia, as a Distinguished Fellow to rally support in the Philadelphia area for educational opportunity and engage the African American community on school choice.
Beyond informing these communities about how they could benefit from Lifeline Scholarships, Commonwealth knew how important the Philadelphia area was politically. Commonwealth’s Director of Foundations, Rhett Butler, added: “Southeastern Pennsylvania lawmakers and voters are needed to advance statewide school choice legislation—and have traditionally been opposed to such measures—so engaging this new audience was critical to accomplishing our goals of passing school choice legislation.”
Commonwealth also reached out to lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle. In Pennsylvania’s 2022 legislative session, Commonwealth began growing a coalition of supporters by targeting both Republican and Democratic lawmakers who have not historically backed educational freedom—especially in Eastern Pennsylvania. The Foundation also focused on parents, educators, and leaders in those lawmakers’ home districts.
Another important feature of Commonwealth’s campaign was their communications strategy. Commonwealth’s communications team ensured their message on the importance of Lifeline Scholarships was broadcast across the state—and that lawmakers heard the voices of their constituents. CF’s targeted digital ads, including Facebook and banner ads that featured specific lawmakers and key messages, garnered more than 3 million impressions and 12,000 clicks. At the same time, Commonwealth sent nearly 140,000 mailers to voters in key districts about how Pennsylvania families would benefit from Lifeline Scholarships.
As a result of their efforts, Pennsylvania residents sent nearly 500 emails to their lawmakers advocating for the bill. In addition, Commonwealth’s government affairs team held more than 100 meetings with state representatives to educate them about the Lifeline Scholarship Program and how it would help the people in their districts.
Commonwealth’s campaign to advance a school choice program in Pennsylvania paid off. On April 27, 2022, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, with bipartisan support, passed the Lifeline Scholarship Program, which would give nearly $7,000 to students in failing schools to use on approved education expenses. The bill then advanced to the Pennsylvania Senate, where it passed the Senate Education Committee on June 21, 2022.
Senior Vice President of the Commonwealth Foundation, Nathan Benefield, added:
“Lifeline scholarships give educational opportunity to low-income children, who are more likely than their peers to be trapped in a school with bullying, safety concerns, and failing academics. These scholarships empower families to choose the education their children deserve.”
Advancing this legislation could not have happened without the Commonwealth Foundation and their campaign to give struggling students in their community better education opportunities. Although there is still work to do before the bill is fully adopted in the state, Commonwealth has achieved a major win in generating bipartisan momentum behind the Lifeline Scholarship Program. Rhett Butler added:
“It was truly an all-hands-on-deck effort—and it paid off in a big way. Commonwealth has spent the past decade fighting for education choice, and we will not stop fighting for children.”
For their work to improve K-12 education in Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth Foundation received State Policy Network’s 2022 Bob Williams Award for Outstanding Policy Achievement in the Best Issue Campaign category.
HB 2169: Lifeline Scholarship Program
Commonwealth Foundation research
Pa.’s Students Need a Lifeline
Commonwealth Foundation in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Excellent Education Isn’t for the Select Few
Commonwealth Foundation in the Philadelphia Citizen
Pa. Senate Committee Passes Lifeline Scholarships
Commonwealth Foundation press release