Shawn "Jay Z" Carter at President Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration. Photo credit: Michael Whitney/Flickr

Deep dive into Jay-Z’s private voucher plan for Philadelphia schools tethers him to Republican interests, faces public backlash

10 mins read

In Roc Nation’s mission to education reform creates negative responses due to the aligning with the conservative-backed PASS It Forward program.

The American rapper and business mogul, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, has found himself embroiled in controversy on education reform. Recently, it was discovered that he is in support of “school choice,” which is a policy that provides public funding to parents for their child’s education, even if it is not at a public school. 

In an announcement,  Jay-Z, under his company, Roc Nation, pledged to donate $300 million in scholarships to public schools in the city of Philadelphia. However, his donations have consisted of vouchers that go to private schools, including charter schools. “He’s (Jay-Z) going to cherry pick a couple of ‘special kids’ and put them into private schools with basically vouchers… vouchers don’t really help communities,” says community activist librarian and children’s book author Shanna Miles.  

Miles critiques Jay-Z in a TikTok post arguing that $300 million dollars could be better used to improve public schools through hiring social workers and psychologists to assist the mental health of students, by providing stipends for teachers to create after school clubs and provide after school tutoring, hiring certified librarians and purchasing books for school libraries, upgrading gymnasiums, offering free pre-K and reducing class sizes. “See how that $300 million could help all the students, instead of a handful?” Miles concludes.  

In an increasing debate over the state of public schools in the U.S., advocates for “school choice” express the belief that public education resources should be available to parents who choose to enroll their children into schools outside of the public school option. In that notion, educational institutions such as private schools, charter schools or homeschooling programs should be included to ensure their children receive the best-quality education.

“School choice is a better solution,” Corey DeAngelis, senior fellow for American Federation for Children tells Kerry McDonald of the Foundation for Economic Education. “The problem isn’t necessarily the curriculum per se. It’s being stuck in a one-size-fits-all system that, by definition, is never going to work. It’s never going to meet the needs of individual families who just disagree about how they want to raise their children.”

In spite of this, school choice has attracted a fair share of detractors. Its opposition asserts that it undermines funding towards public schools that are desperately in need of resources. Philadelphia in particular has been having issues with its public school system being underfunded and short-staffed. 

In Pennsylvania, after winning bipartisan support, the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS It Forward) Program passed the Senate Education committee which will allow families to obtain up to $10,000 to send their children to non-public schools. This has been a controversial program and has gotten backlash largely from Pennsylvania Democrats who are opposing the bill.

The major push for the PASS program is from the Commonwealth Foundation which is a conservative organization in favor of free market, school choice and small government. This is where Jeff Yass comes into play. A billionaire who is a major TikTok investor and owner of the trading firm Susquehanna International Group, Yass has a history of donating to Republican causes. The Pennsylvania native is a major benefactor for the Commonwealth Foundation and a big advocate for school choice. Also, Yass has connections with former U.S. President, Donald Trump, as a shareholder in the Trump-owned Digital World Acquisitional Corporation. Recently, Trump was found guilty on 34 felonious charges regarding hush money to a sex worker. 

Trump is also a supporter of school choice even declaring “school choice is the Civil Rights statement of the year.” Additionally, Trump had appointed Betty DeVos, a school choice advocate to be his Secretary of Education. Together, Trump and Devos devised a plan to slash federal funds to public schools in order to create a federal program solely for school vouchers. 

DeVos also is responsible for rolling back many of the federal protections for nonwhite and LGBT students that the Obama Administration passed. Despite DeVos’s stated belief that the federal government should not interfere with schools, she and Trump threatened to put pressure on public schools to reopen in the Fall during the 2020 pandemic. 

Jay-Z’s association with Yass and advocating for school choice is consistent with the lobbying efforts to increase public funding for private schools via vouchers. School vouchers almost exclusively help students attending or planning to enroll into private schools. Under its restrictive requirements, the majority of public school students in Philadelphia are not eligible to receive any benefit from this measure. 

On X, formerly known as Twitter, critics towards PASS and Jay-Z’s voucher program have been vocal:

Philadelphia City Council member Kendra Brooks tweeted, “I want parents to know the truth about vouchers. Data show that private school vouchers overwhelmingly benefit wealthy families whose students never went to public schools in the first place. They are a scam to take our public dollars and send them to private schools.”

Josh Cowen, professor of educational policy at Michigan State University also tweets, “what’s insidious about how the Pennsylvania thing is being marketed is this idea that all you have to do is be eligible for a voucher. There’s nothing in the legislation that requires them to take you.”

In addition, Rebecca Guterman of the American Civil Liberties Union writes in her article about school choice “that voucher and tax credit programs typically funnel taxpayer funds into private and often religious schools that are free to discriminate against students on a variety of grounds and are exempt from meeting the same educational requirements as public schools.”

Guterman furthered. “Parents have the right to send their children to a private school and to provide a religious education for them at their own expense. But taxpayers are not and should not be obligated to fund that decision.”

In the crowd, Jay Z watches as former Vice President Joe Biden is sworn into office at the 2013 inauguration. Jay Z stands next to his megastar wife, Beyonce Knowles Carter. Photo credit: Voice of America

While Jay-Z’s Roc Nation has been involved in many public philanthropic causes such as the Shawn Carter Scholarship Fund, Bitcoin Academy and Bridges to Wealth, his support for school choice brings up questions of authenticity since it only further drives income inequality and a decline in public education.

This has not been the first time Jay-Z has faced criticism. In 2012, he endorsed the construction of a $1 billion-dollar sports stadium The Barclays Center in his native Brooklyn, even performing at the opening ceremony. Jay-Z also owns a share of the Brooklyn Nets team who have their home at the Barclays Center. Long-term residents in Brooklyn have seen this as an act of betrayal because this expedites gentrification, raising property values and displacing the working class residents.

Jay-Z’s partnership with the National Football League (NFL) to become the official producer for Super Bowl Half-Time Show as of 2020 drew outrage. Jay-Z publicly endorsed Colin Kaepernick who knelt in protest of police brutality against Black people during the national anthem at the 2016 Super Bowl. In the aftermath, Kaepernick has been let go from the NFL and has not been rehired since. In spite of publicly supporting Kaepernick, Jay-Z still went to work with the NFL. 

Duplicity is no stranger to Jay-Z and while his school voucher plan sounds good on paper, it fails to make any real significant strides for all children. In the city of Jay-Z’s choice, Philadelphia, there exists a public education system that suffers due to a variety of factors including a lack of up-to-date equipment, safe facilities, reliable bussing, food and HVAC systems. Plus, schools have been struggling to retain teachers and staff who are being sought out by suburban areas which promise safer work environments. Students, especially those from working class and high-risk backgrounds are not getting the care and support they need and this contributes greatly to poor attendance and failing grades. 

According to The U.S. Census, Philadelphia is a predominately Black American city with a poverty rate of 21.7% with 28% of the poor population being under the age of 18. Poverty in Philadelphia disproportionately affects Black and Latino residents. Not only does the public school situation in Philadelphia reflect income inequality, but also racial inequality as well. “[Seventy-five percent] of public high school students in the Philadelphia School District come from low-income families,” 12Plus, a Philly-based nonprofit organization, declared in a statement. In addition, “10% of Philadelphia students go on to earn a college degree.”

“We are the fifth largest school district in the country,” says Mathison, co-founder of the advocacy group Philly Children’s Movement. Mathison states that due to the huge size of the school district, there needs to be more resources and funding allocated to ensure proper maintenance.

“It’s not (the school voucher program) something our district could possibly support. It is something that would gut our community schools. It would dismantle our public school system.”

“There are brilliant and caring teachers, administrators, staff members, out-of-schooltime organizations and nonprofits that are answering the calls of our students in our district,” Mathison says to combat the negative stereotypes said in regards to public schools which is fueling the school choice movement.

Mathison asks Jay-Z, “Have you spoken to our mayor, have you spoken to our teachers union, have you spoken to our administrators at our schools, have you spoken to our parents, have you spoken to recent graduates of these schools?”

“It’s really misleading because a lot of what they are putting out there is that they aren’t taking money out of the school district,” says Tara Brown, co-director of Philly Children’s Movement. “But it is coming from taxpayers, and the money will ultimately be coming from the school district.” Brown also notes that Jay-Z has been promoting school choice through hosting various “dine and learn” sessions with Team Roc as a way to sell private schools to marginalized communities.

“Funneling back to capitalist billionaire interests,” Brown criticizes Jay-Z’s lobbying tactics.

At the expense of declining public schools, wealthy residents of major cities have been increasingly enrolling their children into private schools. School choice sympathizers have listed non-public schools as a better option than public and a quick solution for working families hence the push for school vouchers and federal funding. However that does not depict the whole picture. Jay-Z’s school voucher program fails to address the factor that non-public schools have a history of practicing discriminatory enrollment and excluding children from certain socioeconomic, racial and religious backgrounds and sexual and gender identities.

A choice divided

There’s the ugly history of racism behind school vouchers in The U.S. Many Southern states created voucher programs as a way to maintain segregation in light of the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. In some areas, public schools that were forced to integrate became majority-Black as white students filled up the private schools and funding for public schools declined as homeowners refused a raise of property taxes to fund predominately-Black public schools. This racially-motivated practice of publicly funding private schools led to “segregation academies.” 

Black students have also faced discrimination due to dress codes which practice hair discrimination. Black students have been reprimanded for having hairstyles such as dreadlocks, braids and braid extensions. Despite the CROWN Act which as of 2024 was passed in 26 states to protect Black students against hair discrimination, only one state (Colorado) had placed specific measures to extend to private schools. 

School choice blurs the separation of church and state when it comes to private schools receiving public funding. Depending on the area, the only schools available through vouchers could be religiously-affiliated.

Students who hold personal beliefs that do not align with the religious tenets of their school of choice could be barred from enrollment or, if permitted in, penalized if they do not uphold the tenets of the school. According to a survey conveyed by the The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), “LGBTQ+ students attending private religious schools experience more discrimination… and have the least access to the essential supports for their wellbeing and academic achievement”

An article published by The U.S. Department of Education states that  “parentally placed children with disabilities do not have an individual entitlement to services they would receive if they were enrolled in a public school.”

This means that students with disabilities are at risk for being marginalized since nonpublic schools do not have to uphold the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under IDEA, local education agencies (LEAs) must ensure that a free appropriate public education (FAPE), Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and accommodations are in place for students with disabilities. 

When a disabled student is attending a nonpublic school, the LEA is only required to ensure federal funds go to these schools; however the schools do not need to have an individual plan in place for each student. This raises concerns that students with disabilities will lose their rights under IDEA if enrolled in nonpublic schools under a voucher program. 

School voucher programs are not without fault to the taxpayers. Pennsylvania, for instance, had a tax credit scholarship system that allowed wealthy residents to donate to voucher programs in exchange for tax credit. According to Pennsylvania-based former teacher and journalist Peter Greene in an article for Bucks County Beacon, “the state gives the donor a tax credit. In effect, they fund a private school voucher instead of paying a portion of their taxes.”

Money that could have gone to public schools (and other public resources) are funneled into private school vouchers. And due to the discriminatory nature found in many nonpublic schools, this further takes resources away from students who would benefit from properly-funded public schools. Furthermore, the majority of Philadelphia residents will still have to rely on the public schools that are struggling to be maintained. Roc Nation has provided no public solution in cases of discrimination and lack of school support for students who apply to or enroll into private schools through the voucher program.

The PASS program will be up for debate with legislators as the June 30th deadline reaches for a decision for the state budget of Pennsylvania. A budget of $242 million is also being proposed for Philadelphia public schools however the future is still uncertain until a compromise is settled on the deadline.

Despite his image of being a savior to Black American youth, Jay-Z once again misses the mark and opens himself to scrutiny. “I think it is time for people in power, in entertainment, with prestige, with money to recognize that we the people are actually paying attention and we actually care what you do with our money and with our lives,” says Mathison.

“Actually come to our city, meet with people, understand the landscape of our education system locally and from a state level. Understand the dynamics of what is happening in our state and therefore our city. And work with people who are already doing this work.”

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