School Choice Progress in PA 2017-18

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

This African saying, attributed by some to Desmond Tutu, has been successfully employed by school choice advocates in Pennsylvania. While the goal of empowering all families to choose their own education is not yet in reach, taking things one bite at a time has given thousands of students the chance to attend a school that works for them.

The 2017-18 legislative session exemplifies this approach. Since 2001, Pennsylvania children have had limited access to school choice through the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program. The Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) was added in 2012 to provide scholarships to children in low-performing schools. Sadly, the impact of these programs is limited due to arbitrary tax credit caps.

The House Education Committee set out to increase those caps from the very beginning of the session. After several months of wrangling, school choice supporters managed to get a $10 million EITC increase through the legislature in fall 2017 as part of a package of reforms. While he did not sign it, Governor Wolf allowed the increase to become law automatically through inaction. The 2018-19 budget, signed by the governor in June 2018, included an additional $25 million EITC increase.

By taking one bite at a time, lawmakers managed to secure a 47 percent increase in the amount of EITC scholarships available despite Gov. Wolf’s clear opposition to the program. Considering nearly half of all scholarship applications were denied last year due to lack of funds, this increase is welcome news for students across the state.

Concerning charter schools, the 2017-18 legislature did not address the problems with charter authorization, though a charter school consolidation provision was passed that should ease administrative burdens for charters. The legislation also put forth conditions that need to be met for two or more high-performing charter schools to organize under a single board of trustees or a single administrator.

Here are three ways lawmakers can give Pennsylvania kids more education options in the upcoming 2018-19 legislative session.

1. Follow Florida’s lead and adopt an automatic increase for the tax credit scholarship programs. This provision would allow caps to increase automatically whenever 90 percent are claimed the previous year. Allowing tax credit scholarships to grow with demand would empower more parents to choose the education that works for their children. It would also save taxpayers money; an audit of the EITC program showed it saved Pennsylvania schools more than $1 billion between 2002 and 2014.

2. Establish Education Scholarship Accounts or ESAs: Heading into the 2017-18 legislative session, House Majority Leader Dave Reed  challenged his colleagues to move Pennsylvania into the 21st century: “Now is the time to reimagine and redesign government, our state and our future.” When it comes to education, the future is ESAs. Pennsylvania’s first ESA bills were introduced this session: Senate Bill 2 and House Bills 1717 and 2228. Although SB 2 was the only one to make it out of committee, getting the bills introduced was a significant first “bite” of the elephant.

3. Allow independent charter authorizers. Under the current system, school districts—which rightly view charters as competitors—get to decide which charter schools are approved. While there is an appeal process in place, it is time consuming and expensive. The lengthy waiting lists at many charter schools show this system isn’t working for students. Independent authorizers would get around that conflict of interest.

In his second term, Gov. Wolf needs to realize the needs of students come before the wishes of his union donors. The one bite at a time approach has helped thousands of children, but it also leaves thousands behind. With support from Gov. Wolf, Pennsylvania can tackle the entire school choice elephant in the coming session.

To read other 2017-18 session recap blogs click on the images below.