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Dozens of black pastors ask Shapiro to embrace school choice

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(The Center Square) — More than 50 religious leaders sent an open letter on Tuesday to Gov. Josh Shapiro asking him to support school choice and educational freedom.

Black Pastors United for Education, the nonprofit group, urged Shapiro to “make education a non-partisan issue, boldly dismiss the politics that prevent progress, and comprehensively fund and secure educational freedom and opportunity.”

The open letter comes as Jay-Z announced his support for school vouchers in Pennsylvania and House Democrats passed a bill to rework the student funding formula that would hit charter schools hard.

In Shapiro’s first year as governor, his initial support for school choice sparked a months-long budget delay after he walked it back, with Republicans accusing him of breaking a promise.

“It is time for Pennsylvania to lead our nation in educational opportunity,” Black Pastors United for Education argued. “We must work intentionally, collaboratively, strategically, and compassionately for our children and our state.”

The group asked Shapiro to “fully and properly fund our public schools,” create Lifeline Scholarships to give students in the state’s lowest-performing schools the ability to enroll in another school, and oppose funding cuts to online charter schools, which serve higher percentages of low-income and non-white students than traditional schools.

“We believe that every child in Pennsylvania deserves educational options curated to their unique needs and interests,” BPUE wrote. “We empower the voices of parents and guardians, as well as community and religious leaders, to tell lawmakers that every child in Pennsylvania should have access to a quality education, regardless of zip code, background, or circumstance.”

Rev. Joshua Robertson, senior pastor at The Rock Church in Harrisburg and BPUE’s founder, noted that they have bipartisan support on properly funding public schools, but getting agreement on Lifeline Scholarships and preserving cyber charter school funding is trickier.

“When I explain what Lifeline Scholarships are or explain alternatives, I haven’t met one parent — not one — who is in any opposition ever,” he said. “If adding educational choices negatively impacts our public schools, then I think we have a larger conversation about a broken system.”

He offered himself as an example of someone who went to public school but read at a second grade level upon graduation. Though he was a success in football, he didn’t catch up academically until a bishop in North Carolina mentored him and got him on track for a bachelor’s and master’s degree.

“My life changed because somebody inconvenienced their entire life to make sure I had a chance,” Robertson said. “The easy thing to do is to say more money equals success. But I think we have a 30-year history in Pennsylvania and beyond that shows that increased funding doesn’t necessarily equate to better education.”

Students and parents want more opportunity and choice, he argued.

“We need our lawmakers to put politics aside and do what’s right for kids,” Robertson said. “Governor Shapiro, whom we believe in and are praying for, we’re looking for him to lead the Senate and House to comprehensively fund education options and choices in Pennsylvania. We’re looking for him to lead that charge and not allow politics to get in the way of people.”