‘This Ain’t It’: Pennsylvanians Slam Jay-Z’s Roc Nation for School Voucher Push

Jessica Corbett, Common Dreams

As pro-public education groups plan a rally at the Pennsylvania State Capitol, educators and advocates on Friday criticized hip-hop icon Jay-Z’s company Roc Nation over a campaign backing a proposed school voucher program in the commonwealth.

The campaign’s “Dine & Learn” events in Philadelphia this month are intended to share information about the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) or “Lifelife Scholarships,” as supporters also call them. If approved by state legislators in the next budget, the program would put tax dollars toward “education opportunity accounts” for certain families to send their children to K-12 private schools rather than low-performing public ones.

“Just to be clear for those not in Pennsylvania, the legislation Jay-Z is supporting here is a Republican-led effort to gut public education.”

“We have enjoyed such a special connection with Philadelphians, so we’ve made it our mission to invest in the long-term success of the city’s changemakers,” Roc Nation managing director of philanthropy Dania Diaz said in a statement. “Impact starts with the students and with awareness. We want to empower the youth and families with the knowledge to pursue their scholastic dreams, make their voices heard, and become the leaders of tomorrow.”

While the campaign led to multiple headlines about “How Roc Nation Is Helping Underprivileged Students in Philadelphia Get Into Private Schools,” some critics of putting tax money—in this case, potentially tens or hundreds of millions of dollars—toward private school tuition expressed disappointment and frustration on Friday, just weeks away from Pennsylvania’s June 30 budget deadline.

“This ain’t it,” said the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania (AFTPA) on social media, posting a photo of Jay-Z—whose given name is Shawn Carter—with suburban Philadelphia multibillionaire Jeffrey Yass, a Republican megadonor with a history of using his money to push for school vouchers and the defeat progressive political candidates.

“Don’t get it twisted, PASS is a Yassified school choice/school voucher bill,” one social media user wrote.

Other critics also mentioned Yass. Phil Gentry, an organizer with West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools, referenced reporting that the billionaire is being considered as a potential Treasury secretary if former Republican President Donald Trump beats Democratic President Joe Biden in the November election.

“Just to be clear for those not in Pennsylvania,” Gentry noted, “the legislation Jay-Z is supporting here is a Republican-led effort to gut public education, spearheaded by future Trump Cabinet member Jeffrey Yass.”

Challenging the framing of some of the news coverage about the Roc Nation campaign, Philadelphia public interest lawyer Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg said, “As Pennsylvania is on the verge of transforming the most inequitable school funding system in the nation, an out-of-state billionaire is pairing with a suburban Philadelphia one to try to destroy public education instead.”

The attorney highlighted that the hip-hop billionaire‘s company is pushing for vouchers as Democrats in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives are “working to pass a $5.1 billion transformation” to help the commonwealth’s poorest school districts, sharing a report from the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

Urevick-Ackelsberg also circulated criticism from New York Times Magazine journalist Nicole Hannah-Jones, who said that “voucher programs have not been shown to improve results for poor Black children because most cannot get into high-quality private schools.”

“Read the fine print. All of the money is coming from taxpayers,” she continued. Roc Nation’s “involvement is to convince poor Black parents to leave the public schools.”

While PASS advocates argue the program will not take money from public schools because it “will be fulfilled by government funds from a separate line item and will not reduce the overall budget to public education programming,” Hannah-Jones pushed back.

“It is a lie that these programs do not take from public school funding. Fewer kids in the classroom means fewer dollars to the school,” the journalist stressed. “This is a windfall to the city’s private schools at the expense of the public ones that most kids attend.”

Citing research by Michigan State University professor Josh Cowen—the author of The Privateers, a forthcoming book on school vouchers—Hannah Jones added: “Stop playing with us. Not only do students who go to private schools on vouchers not perform better, 1 out of 5 [leave] the private school and actually see improved academic results by returning to the public school.”

Other critics referenced an award-winning sitcom created by Philadelphia-born writer and actress Quinta Brunson, with National Press Foundation fellow Bradford William Davis saying that a “new Abbott Elementary villain just dropped.”

Dena Driscoll, a parent in the city, said that “Jay-Z is like ‘defund Abbott Elementary‘ and for real though my actual Philadelphian children’s public school. Lifeline Scholarships mean most of our children are left to drown.”

The battle over including the program in Pennsylvania’s 2024-25 budget follows a similar fight last year. As the Capital-Starreported in May: “The PASS program was initially supported by Gov. Josh Shapiro during partisan debates over the state budget last year, but House Democrats opposed it. While the version of the budget that passed the Senate included funding for the voucher program, House Democrats refused to pass it unless Shapiro agreed to veto the item. Ultimately, that’s what happened.”

When the Democratic governor unveiled his budget proposal in February, he called school vouchers “unfinished business.”

While Roc Nation is now behind the push for PASS, people across Pennsylvania continue to organize against school voucher programs. AFTPA pointed out Friday: “We’re literally holding a rally on Monday against this. Join us!”

The rally, planned for noon local time on June 10, will involve “a coalition of pro-public education labor unions, organizations, and advocates,” organizers said in a statement. Parents, students, retirees, and group leaders “will speak on the need for the General Assembly to fulfill its constitutional duty by funding public education and rejecting any effort to divert funds away from public schools through private school vouchers.”

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