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Jay-Z Enters One of PA’s Messiest Political Fights

Jay-Z Enters One of PA’s Messiest Political Fights

by Stephen Caruso and Katie Meyer of Spotlight PA

Photo courtesy of Nate Smallwood / For Spotlight PA

Jay-Z’s company, Roc Nation, is funding informational events to get Philadelphians on board with using taxpayer money for private school vouchers.

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A series of events intended to get Philadelphians to support using taxpayer money to fund private school vouchers is bankrolled by an unexpected figure: billionaire rapper Jay-Z.

His company’s entrance into the rancorous funding debate comes amid sustained lobbying by advocates for vouchers. An opaque organization with ties to Jeff Yass, Pennsylvania’s richest person, has spent nearly $1 million over the past year primarily on this one cause — and has loosened its purse strings further during this year’s state budget talks.

The voucher effort is largely championed by conservatives but has support from key Democrats such as Gov. Josh Shapiro.

Supporters say taxpayer-funded vouchers would give parents and children who attend public schools with low test scores crucial options. Opponents, including many Democrats as well as public school unions and advocates, say the program would divert needed dollars from already underfunded systems and weaken them more.

Republicans who control the state Senate championed a $100 million voucher program last year, but it was defeated by the Democratic-controlled state House. Such a proposal is again on the table as lawmakers debate a budget deal ahead of the June 30 deadline.

Dania Diaz — who is both the managing director of philanthropy at Roc Nation, Jay-Z’s entertainment company, and the executive director of one of Jay-Z’s nonprofits, the Shawn Carter Foundation — said the rapper and entrepreneur got involved in the voucher push because of his longtime work funding college scholarships, and because of his familiarity with Philadelphia.

He is a founding partner of the Philly-based REFORM Alliance, which advocates for a less punitive criminal justice system, and also runs the annual Made in America festival in the city.

Jay-Z is also close with Michael Rubin, a Philadelphia billionaire who co-heads REFORM and has put his money behind private education before. Rubin, rapper Meek Mill, and comedian Kevin Hart have together donated at least $24 million since 2020 to provide scholarships for Philadelphia students to attend private schools, according to media reports. In at least one case, the three ran the money through a group that helps donors claim a state tax credit that reduces their annual tax payments for donating to private schools.

Diaz spoke with Spotlight PA as Roc Nation kicked off its series of Philadelphia events Tuesday with a session at a North Philly conference center run by the nonprofit Esperanza.

More than a dozen Roc Nation representatives were there, wearing matching T-shirts and handing out materials on the voucher program, which was currently pending before the state legislature. Several said they had heard about the effort from friends or from Instagram and noted that Roc Nation was paying them for their time.

Diaz said Roc Nation is holding the informational events in part to push back on the argument that the voucher proposal, known as the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success, or PASS, will weaken public schools.

“There are messages out there that are not true,” she said. “PASS is not taking money out of the public education system. It’s a completely separate line item. It is separately appropriated just for this program.”

According to Diaz, Jay-Z’s pro-voucher push includes billboards and trucks with digital displays driving through Philadelphia, along with the info sessions. A spokesperson for Roc Nation said he couldn’t share how much had been spent so far, as the number is “still being calculated.”

Diaz’s argument that vouchers won’t harm public education is a common one for supporters of the program.

But many opponents argue creating a voucher program is a slippery slope. The program, they say, could grow year by year and end up diverting considerable dollars from the state’s public education budget. They also argue that pulling students out of public schools makes the schools worse for children who remain there.

The debate also comes as Pennsylvania works to fulfill a judge’s order to make the state’s public education system more equitable — a task Democratic lawmakers and public school advocates have argued will take billions of dollars.

“The crisis in public education funding in America could have been solved a long time ago if billionaires like Jeff Yass and Jay-Z simply paid their fair share in taxes instead of robbing needed money from public schools to fund failed voucher schemes which hurt poor kids,” said Arthur Steinberg, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

This isn’t the first time a famous person has thrown their weight behind vouchers.

When the proposal first arose during last year’s budget talks, supporters sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to pass it, and signers included both prominent conservatives like Grover Norquist and former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, as well as music industry figures with Philadelphia ties such as Mill and talent manager Troy Carter.

It’s also not the only major effort currently underway to promote vouchers in the commonwealth.

The other one is decidedly un-Hollywood. Commonwealth Action, a group formed last year, has prodigiously funded pro-voucher advertisements. Spokesperson Erik Telford said the effort is not connected to Jay-Z’s, though he added that the organization is “excited” about the celebrity involvement.

Slightly more information is available about Commonwealth Action’s effort, though crucially, the source of its funding is secret.

The group is incorporated as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, which means it doesn’t have to share its donors publicly; opponents have dubbed these “dark money” organizations. Commonwealth Action formed last year just before budget talks began, and has spent almost $1 million in the past year to pressure lawmakers, according to state lobbying disclosures.

The group has funded a series of digital, newspaper, radio, and billboard ads advocating for the voucher program.

From January to March of this year, the group reported spending nearly $98,000 on indirect lobbying, which targets the public. (Direct lobbying targets state officials or employees.)

Telford confirmed to Spotlight PA that this spending is ongoing, and said it resumed for the new budget season in March. Google’s political advertising tracker also shows that in May, the group began running digital ads for the first time this year.

“Commonwealth Action remains steadfast in our support for Governor Shapiro’s promise to enact Lifeline Scholarships, ensuring Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable children have access to a quality education,” Telford said in a statement. “The momentum that you see, with celebrities joining alongside parents in highlighting the demand for these scholarships, shows the progress that is possible here in Pennsylvania.”

Commonwealth Action has ties to some of Pennsylvania’s most powerful and monied conservatives.

It is connected to the Commonwealth Foundation, a prominent Republican think tank in Pennsylvania, and the two share personnel.

Between October 2022 and September 2023, Commonwealth Action also received $575,000 from the Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs, according to that group’s most recent filings to the IRS.

Commonwealth Partners — which is run by the Commonwealth Foundation’s former CEO — is a free market organization that operates two political action committees that are among the most active in Pennsylvania’s pro-voucher movement. Both PACs are almost entirely financed by Yass, a billionaire Wall Street trader.

The voucher proposal that Jay-Z and Commonwealth Action are pushing would give low-income families whose children attend “low-achieving” schools up to $15,000 to pay for private school tuition and fees.

A family would be eligible for the program only if their child attends a school that ranks in the bottom 15% in test scores and if the household income is less than 250% of the federal poverty limit — or about $62,000 for a family of three.

Jay-Z’s group is publicly lobbying for $300 million in taxpayer money for scholarships. State Senate Republicans asked for $100 million last year. The bill’s language this year doesn’t have a price tag.

Last year, state House Democrats who control the chamber presented a united front and pressured Shapiro to remove a voucher proposal from the budget. That front so far appears to be intact, despite the increased pressure.

“Folks have not called, emailed, or contacted my office about the numerous mailers from the Commonwealth Foundation,” state Rep. Donna Bullock (D., Philadelphia) told Spotlight PA. So far, she hasn’t noticed any new calls after Jay-Z’s jump into the field either.

State Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Philadelphia) is a vocal advocate for alternatives to public schools and told Spotlight PA that “it’s always helpful to have people involved in conversations that can connect with the public.”

But amid June’s complicated budget debates, he said, “I’m not quite sure what [Jay-Z’s involvement] does with regard to the political process.”

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