Critics Blast Jay-Z’s Philadelphia School Voucher Campaign

Jay-Z attends the UEFA Champions League 2023/24 final match between Borussia Dortmund v. Real Madrid CF at Wembley Stadium on June 1 in London, England.
Jay-Z attends the UEFA Champions League 2023/24 final match between Borussia Dortmund v. Real Madrid CF at Wembley Stadium on June 1 in London, England. Mateusz Slodkowski via Getty Images

Jay-Z’s Roc Nation announced Fridayit will lead a campaign aimed at promoting a new school voucher program for Philadelphia-area students in grades K-12 from low-income households.

The entertainment company will host several events in the Philadelphia area in June seeking to inform residents about the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS), a Republican-backed Senate bill also known as the lifeline scholarship program that aims to provide “low-income students in low-performing schools with scholarships to attend the school of their choice.”

“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,” Dania Diaz, Roc Nation managing director of philanthropy, 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.”

Several headlines claimed that Jay-Z and Roc Nation were rolling out a $300 million scholarship for students. That’s not correct — this is a taxpayer-funded program, and Roc Nation is hosting events to lobby support for the bill. Senate Bill 757 is at the center of a fierce fight in the Pennsylvania Capitol as the budget deadline of June 30 nears, and Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro hasvoiced support for vouchers. 

It’s pitched as another avenue for low-income students to pursue schooling that might otherwise not be affordable. However, critics claim the campaign is just another attempt to gut public education by diverting funding from public schools.

“This ain’t it. The answer to the inequity plaguing our PA public schools is not a celebrity campaign for a GOP proposal to take public dollars to send a few ‘lucky’ kids to private schools,” Pennsylvania Rep. Summer Lee posted in response. “The answer is to make sure our public schools are actually properly funded.”

The American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania shared a photo of Jay-Z and Jeffrey Yass, an ultrawealthy Republican megadonor who has donated tens of millions of dollars toward the school choice movement in Philadelphia. “This ain’t it,” they posted.

“He’s putting his name and organization behind an effort to get $300 million in tax dollars to fund these schools,” said Josh Cowen, professor of education policy and author of “THE PRIVATEERS: How Billionaires Created a Culture War and Sold School Vouchers.”

On the PASS website, the program insists that it does not direct money away from public schools: “The PASS program budget will be fulfilled by government funds from a separate line item and will not reduce the overall budget to public education programming.”

However, journalist Nikole Hannah Jones pushed back against that statement. “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,” she posted on social media. “This is a windfall to the city’s private schools at the expense of the public ones that most kids attend.”

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro delivers his budget address for the 2024-25 fiscal year to a joint session of the state House and Senate in the Rotunda of the state Capitol on Feb. 6 in Harrisburg. Pennsylvania lawmakers will return to session on June 3, as they begin a four-week countdown to the state government's new fiscal year, as Shapiro and Republican lawmakers offer competing visions for how to use a massive surplus.

In a phone interview, Roc Nation CEO Desiree Perez said that the entertainment company “is not backing any particular bill or any political party. What we are backing is education.”

She said the company is only interested in informing residents about the program. “We’re not forcing people to sign anything. We’re just educating them, which I would think everyone wants people to make informed decisions.”

“We care about our people,” she explained. “We care about the children. And the only thing that I don’t see anywhere is anyone talking about the kids. People are talking about the public school system and how important it is, which I agree. I hear all about the budget, government, parties and bills, but no one’s talking about the children.”

Perez said Jay-Z and Roc Nation are involved in this educational campaign because it is the most practical way to help Philadelphia’s students right now, pointing to state standardized test results that have worsened in the wake of the pandemic. According to the 2023 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, almost 75% of eighth-grade students are at grade level in mathematics. About 34% of third through eighth graders met proficiency or higher in English scores. “The kids in these zip codes are suffering right now.”

“If you have a better solution, aside from making [students] wait until the public school system can get it together with the funding they are receiving, I am all ears,” she said.

In 2023, a Commonwealth Court judge ruled that Pennsylvania’s school funding system was unconstitutional and that legislators must find a way to fix it. Last week, Democrats approved a bill that would bring $5.1 billion to school districts across the state to help close the funding disparity between the wealthiest and poorest schools.

“When public education is properly funded, schools are the hubs of a community. Every child has the right to go to a fully funded neighborhood school that has resources that they need to thrive,” a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said.

“When you destabilize a school district by decentralizing how public education operates and by making a small school here, a charter school there, this private school here, you really upend a cornerstone of democracy.”

School vouchers are public funds parents can use to pay for their child’s private school tuition. They have fraught origins: Segregationists used vouchers in the 1950s to avoid integration efforts. Now, conservatives are aggressively pushing school vouchers as part of what critics say is a full-frontal assault on public education.

Jay-Z isn’t the first entertainer to come under fire for his involvement in Philadelphia’s education system. Meek Mill and Kevin Hart have also donated millions of dollars in scholarships to private schools in the Philadelphia area andhave faced pushback.

“I can’t stress enough just how bad the academic outcomes for these programs are. Not just a little negative, but some of the largest academic declines ever seen in academic research on the topic,” Cowen explained. “These schools can reject anyone they want. They can expel anyone they want. They’re not giving the results they promised to parents. That’s the biggest concern. It’s all messaging and none about results for kids.”