The State of School Choice in Pennsylvania
In many respects, Pennsylvania is a pioneer of school choice. With 173 charter schools—14 of which are cyber charters—and two scholarship tax credit programs, the commonwealth is the envy of choice advocates across the country. But as we recognize and celebrate National School Choice Week, more can be done to ensure that each Pennsylvania child has the opportunity to reach her full potential.
As Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission (SRC) weighs the application of 40 charter schools—many of which have an impressive track record of serving city students—House speaker Mike Turzai is optimistic that multiple new charters will be granted permission to open in Philadelphia:
We are very hopeful that when the final decisions get made that a significant number of the charter applicants are approved.
During the most recent school year, the average Philadelphia charter school outperformed traditional public schools on the Pennsylvania State Performance Profile. What makes this even more impressive is that charter schools spend and receive fewer dollars per student than their district counterparts. Given the academic success of the charter sector, as well as the sizeable demand for schools of choice, the SRC should approve the highest-performing applicants and allow more Philadelphia families to reap the benefits of choice.
In Pennsylvania, school districts are tasked with authorizing new charter applications. This arrangement makes it difficult for even the highest quality charter schools to open new buildings. School districts are fully aware that by approving a new charter school they are essentially approving a new competitor. In order to realign incentives to promote great schools, lawmakers should pursue statewide or university authorizers for charters.
The commonwealth is the first state in the country to enact an education scholarship tax credit aimed at corporations. Thanks to the passage of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program in 2001, more than 430,000 scholarships have been awarded to students from low- and middle-income families seeking better, safer schools.
Scholarship tax credit programs exist in a dozen states, and Pennsylvania is one of only three states to have multiple programs. In 2012, Pennsylvania enacted its second tax credit program—the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC). This program is reserved for low-income students residing in the geographic boundaries of the lowest-achieving public schools in Pennsylvania.
In 2013-14, the OSTC provided more than 7,000 scholarships. Legislation passed late last fall streamlined and simplified the application process for both tax credit programs, which should lead to even greater participation in coming years.
The EITC is capped at $100 million—with $60 million reserved specifically for K-12 scholarships—while the OSTC is capped at $50 million. Lawmakers should look to increase these caps and provide more scholarships—at a savings for taxpayers—to students in need.
Education savings accounts (ESA) are another innovative policy for Pennsylvania lawmakers to consider as a complement to the tax credit programs. ESAs, which have been implemented in Arizona and Florida, could allow parents to deposit their tax credit scholarship funds into a savings account that can be spent with more flexibility.
Instead of reserving the funds strictly for scholarships, ESAs allow parents to purchase textbooks, tutoring services, online courses, curriculum materials, standardized tests, educational therapies, and other approved items. Unspent ESA funds roll over from one year to the next and can be eventually used to pay for college tuition. Lawmakers supportive of the EITC and OSTC should look at ESAs as the logical next step for school choice in Pennsylvania.