Philadelphia parents learned about school choice on Friday at a lunch provided by an unusual benefactor: Jay Z’s entertainment company Roc Nation.

The A-lister is making his final push in a campaign to urge Pennsylvania lawmakers to spend millions on school vouchers ahead of the state’s budget deadline, June 30. The vouchers would entitle families to use public funds traditionally used for public schools toward private and parochial schools.

Jay Z’s New York-based entertainment company announced this month it was backing a $100 million private school choice program in Pennsylvania.

Desiree Perez, Roc Nation’s CEO, said the state’s public school system doesn’t work for some disadvantaged students, and their families deserve unfettered access to alternative options, including high-performing private schools.

The free meals, training sessions, advertising and advocacy from the entertainment mogul sparked criticism from public school advocates and national figures who said school vouchers hurt students of color and low-income students. They worry that public schools will lose vital funding: They said schools need all the cash they can get.

A recent court ruling indicates the state has not provided sufficient resources for all students. The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania ruled last year that the state’s funding system was fundamentally unfair to public school students, and the court directed the state to increase public school funding. Also, earlier this month, the state House passed a plan to spend billions more in state funds on public schools, the Associated Press reported.

Amid the added pressure from the court, the state’s impending decisions about spending on public education could be a “historic moment,” said Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, a senior attorney at the Public Interest Law Center which sued the state, alleging unfair funding. He said he and others will “be back in court” if they feel the state doesn’t allocate fair funding in its budget decisions.

After the legal victory against the school system, Urevick-Ackelsberg said, Jay Z’s activism comes at a particularly inopportune moment.

The lawyers, he said, were “right on the verge” of overhauling Pennsylvania’s system of education “when an out-of-state billionaire comes in and says, instead ‘Let’s enact school vouchers.’ It’s crazy … infuriating.”

Roc Nation officials have said they also support public schools, but the organization backs school choice as “a strategic, near-term solution” to help low-performing kids.

Many states recently passed laws expanding school choice, through vouchers, education savings accounts, refundable tax credits and tax-credit scholarships.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order in 2020 allowing states to spend federal funds on school vouchers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Republican lawmakers, conservative parents rights groups like Moms for Liberty and other school choice advocates say parents should have access to all options when deciding where to send their kids to school.

Roc Nation announced earlier this month it would support several Pennsylvania bills calling for funding that could be used toward private schools. The company hosted informational sessions in Philadelphia to teach parents and voters about the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success program, encouraging them to share their support for it with legislators. If the measure passes, the program would grant scholarships to families of students at the state’s lowest-performing schools. These families could use the funds to attend private schools and to cover other school-related fees.

State Sen. Patrick Stefano, a Republican from Western Pennsylvania, sponsored one of the measures, which calls for taxpayer funding. The state’s Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro has also said he supports the Stefano bill, according to Chalkbeat Philadelphia. A related bill was introduced by Democratic Sen. Tony Williams of Philadelphia. It calls for $300 million towards school choice scholarships instead of the $100 million in the measure Jay Z has publicly backed.

The program Jay Z is backing is also supported by Republican billionaire, megadonor and voucher advocate Jeffrey Yass.

Roc Nation has previously contributed to private schools through the company’s Shawn Carter scholarship program, which grants eligible students money for tuition and other school costs, Perez said.

One of the largest teachers unions in the nation and the largest in Pennsylvania both said the state should focus on funding the public school system.

Following Jay Z’s announcement supporting school vouchers, Randi Weingarten, head of The American Federation of Teachers, wrote in a statement: “Vouchers are, in effect, a tax cut for the rich – with most going to wealthy families who have never even been part of the public school system. They are bankrupting state budgets and leading to closed schools and programs – in Florida and elsewhere.”

“Instead of spending billions on vouchers in Philly, we should be strengthening and investing in public schools so all kids can thrive,” Weingarten said.

Aaron Chapin, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, has said the state should focus on funding its public schools.

“We shouldn’t even think about sending taxpayer money to private and religious schools when our focus should be on fixing Pennsylvania’s unconstitutional public school funding system,” Chapin wrote.

The fundamental questions for families should be what entity should be providing public education and the purpose of public education, said Erika K. Wilson, a law professor and education researcher focused on equity issues at the University of North Carolina School of Law. The purpose should be to make Americans better citizens and improve our democracy, and public schooling is the avenue for that, she said.

Black parents have a legitimate gripe about the low performance rates and underfunding of their public schools, she said, and Jay Z and Roc Nation’s support for private schools as an alternative might look good on its face. But market mechanisms for education are infused with a lot of racial bias, hurt Black communities, in her view.

“If Jay Z really wanted to help, why not partner with public schools and create community schools with wraparound services?” she said.

That year Vermont created its town-tuition program, which provided scholarships to students in towns without public schools, which could be used at public or private schools. In 1991, Wisconsin implemented the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the first modern school voucher program, according to the nonprofit EdChoice. The program grants low- and middle-income families educational vouchers to pay for private schools “they couldn’t otherwise afford,” according to School Choice Wisconsin.

More recently, school choice advocates won support for state-funded voucher and educational scholarship programs with backing from parents upset about COVID-19 pandemic-related closures. Some parents unenrolled their kids from their neighborhood public schools and moved them to other types of schools, including private schools, home schools and charter schools. Many kept them in those schools, and some in states with voucher and scholarship programs have used state dollars to pay for alternative options.

What it means for students and schools:School choice remains popular following COVID closures

At least 29 states and the District of Columbia have some form of school choice program, according an Education Week analysis. This year at least six states – Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Missouri, Nebraska and Utah – enacted new school choice programs or expanded previously existing ones, according to the nonprofit EdChoice, which supports school choice.

EdChoice is tracking 83 bills in 30 states this year related to education savings accounts, vouchers, refundable tax credits and tax-credit scholarships, said Chantal Lovell Fennell, a spokesperson for the organization.

Roc Nation’s position on school choice is idealistic but not realistic, said Kevin Welner, a professor of educational policy and law at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Research has shown that students who use voucher programs to leave a public school and attend a private school do worse academically, especially in math, Welner said. He cited several studies, including one that showed students who participated in the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program performed worse in mathematics during their first year attending a private school compared with similar students who remained in public schools.

“From my perspective as a researcher, it’s incomprehensible that we’re still pursuing these policies that are showing to be so harmful,” Welner said. “The explanation for that, I think, is that billionaires really love the idea, like Jeffrey Yass. I think of Betsy Devos pushing it for years, and Donald Trump, and now we have Jay Z.”

School choice legislation is being pushed, he thinks, “not because of evidence, but because of a lot of billionaires who have a lot of wealthy interests in them.”

“Part of it is I think is an ideological faith in getting rid of public institutions and moving toward a deregulated free market,” Welner said.

Joshua Cowan, an education policy professor who has spent nearly two decades studying choice programs, cited findings showing students lose ground in academic achievement in an article for The Brookings Institute.

In the meantime, Jay Z’s organization plans to continue educating parents about their options, Perez said, even if doing so means, “We’ve become the public enemy.”

Contact Kayla Jimenez at kjimenez@usatoday.com. Follow her on X at @kaylajjimenez.

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