Pennsylvania lawmakers are merging previous school vouchers and tax credit scholarship legislation to provide more options, especially to students in the worst 15 percent of public schools.
Legislators have attempted to pass similar bills this past year and for at least a decade, said state Rep. Jim Christiana (R-Beaver). Voucher bills passed in the Senate have not passed the House. Tax-credit expansion bills pass the House but fail in the Senate.
Hence Chistiana’s bill. House Bill 2468 would increase the cap on the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit, a popular tax credit available to businesses that contribute to nonprofits, which distribute the money to students for private school tuition. The Educational Improvement Scholarship Credit, the bill’s second half, would allow tax-credit scholarships for children zoned to attend the lowest-achieving 15 percent of public schools.
“I was trying to accomplish the same goal of the vouchers program: To provide a way for kids to get out of these underperforming schools and go into a safe learning environment,” Christiana said.
Recipients could attend better public schools outside their current district or private schools. Christiana’s bill substituted business tax credits for vouchers that attach tax dollars to children.
Expensive, Violent Pennsylvania Schools
In the last 15 years, Pennslvania’s K-12 spending has doubled to $26 billion a year—a 44 percent inflation-adjusted increase—while student test scores have “flatlined,” said Priya Abraham, a senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation.
For students in the worst 15 percent of schools, the situation is dire. Dropout rates are staggeringly high and test scores trail far behind the state and nation, Christiana said.
The 82,000 students attending the worst 5 percent of schools face daily violence, Abraham said. The Commonwealth Foundation found there were nearly 10,000 violent incidents such as assault, robberies, and rapes in these 140 schools in the last two years. That’s a violent incident every 17 minutes.
“The simplest way to describe Pennsylvania public schools is the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots,'” Christiana said. “There are two educational systems in Pennsylvania.”
Leadership Necessary for Success
Christiana is confident his bill will weather the House and Senate, citing the vote that vastly expanded the EITC program in 2011.
“Ninety percent of the Democrat caucus and 100 percent of the Republican caucus voted for that major expansion,” he said. “That’s because [the tax credit] has been very successful for over a decade.”
To pass the bill before the budget cycle closes, legislative leadership must move quickly, he said.
“The votes are there to pass this overwhelmingly in both chambers. It’s just a matter of leadership,” Christiana said. “To give these kids an option before school reconvenes in the fall, this bill needs to be finalized by the end of June.”
Hunger for Choice
The state’s education tax credits have so far provided 40,000 students with school choice, but government caps leave many families clamoring for more.
“They always have more kids that want them than they have scholarships,” said Allegheny Institute President Jake Haulk. “It’s never been a rich enough program.”
The Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia alone turns away 7,000 applicants every year, Abraham said.
Image © Charlotte Kesl / World Bank.