Pittsburgh School Choice Fair

When I walked into the Pittsburgh School Choice Fair on Saturday, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I certainly did not anticipate being blown away by the diversity of options available in the Pittsburgh area. Despite being there for over two hours, I didn’t manage to visit every school’s booth.

When people think about school choice, they often think exclusively of private school choice. Pennsylvania’s tax credit scholarship programs— Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC)—do help low- and middle-income families access private school options. However, there are also public school choices in the form of magnet and charter schools. All of these various options were represented at the fair.

Pittsburgh has a rich tradition of Catholic schools that continues to this day. However, unlike in the past, Catholic schools today are not just for Catholics. Schools like Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy and St. Benedict the Moor School primarily serve low-income African American children in urban Pittsburgh. Without the EITC and OSTC programs, most of these children would not be able to attend these schools.

Nazareth Prep in Emsworth is an innovative Catholic high school focused on college and career readiness. A key component of the curriculum is the Corporate Internship Program (CIP), which pairs students with Pittsburgh employers to work on-site one day each week for the entire school year. In addition to preparing them for future opportunities, the CIP helps underwrite students’ tuition. Nazareth Prep pledges not to turn away any families due to financial need. All families at the school received aid in 2017, thanks in large part to EITC and OSTC donations.

Other private schools were also represented at the fair, including Pittsburgh Urban Christian School. PUCS features a unique unit-based curriculum, which is organized around social studies or science themes that incorporate reading, writing, math, music, and art. More than 60 percent of students at PUCS receive financial aid, most of which comes from EITC and OSTC donations.

There were numerous charter schools represented at the School Choice Fair as well. The Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship (PHCSE) merges many unique features. Students in K-6 participate in MicroSociety, a mini-metropolis that allows students to learn in a real-world environment—complete with a government, entrepreneurial opportunities, and a marketplace. Students in 7th and 8th grade get a jumpstart on future competition by learning through the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship curriculum. PHCSE provides area students with a tuition-free alternative to their local district schools.

Spectrum Charter School, located in Monroeville, is geared toward students with cognitive, communication, and sensory challenges who do not thrive in a typical classroom. In addition to traditional academics, the school emphasizes vocational training, volunteering, and community-based learning opportunities to help develop skills for daily living. Of the booths I visited, Spectrum’s was the only one staffed by students (accompanied by their principal), and they did an excellent job explaining their experiences to me.

Unfortunately, government policies are still preventing choice. Two of the innovative charter schools at the fair are unable to enroll any students. Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS), which must approve charter schools within the district, has denied charters to Catalyst Academy and Career Tech Charter High School. Catalyst, founded by a former PPS Executive Director of Strategic Priorities, plans to focus on rigorous academics, social-emotional learning, 21st century skill development, and project-based learning. Career Tech, co-founded by three “teacher moms,” focuses on situational, project-based learning. In addition to a high school diploma, students will have the opportunity to stay for a 5th year and earn an associate’s degree.

It is illogical to empower districts as the sole authorizer of charters. Catalyst and Career Tech are appealing to the state, after an extremely onerous and expensive chartering process. Independent authorizers could objectively evaluate charter applicants without the inherent conflict of interest present in the current system.

Students who want to use tax credit scholarships face government imposed barriers too. State-mandated caps result in thousands of scholarship applications being denied each year. Allowing the tax credit programs to increase with demand would go a long way toward giving more families access to school choice.

Every child in Pittsburgh and throughout Pennsylvania deserves to thrive in the educational environment that works best for them. As the Pittsburgh School Choice Fair showed, different families seek different educational options. Government policies should enable, not thwart, innovation in education.