Gov. Wolf’s 2019 budget promotes public and private options for pre-K and post-secondary education. He calls Pennsylvania’s post-secondary institutions “laboratories for innovation.” Most remarkably, the governor touts Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) grants that “reduce financial barriers and provide greater access to higher education for all commonwealth residents and, within the limits of the resources available, help to provide freedom of choice between public and private institutions.”
Yes, you read that correctly. Freedom of choice between public and private institutions. Wolf clearly recognizes that educational choice is good in and of itself—and that it results in superior performance. At least in the higher education realm.
But when it comes to K-12 education, the governor has blinders on. All of his K-12 education efforts center on district-run public schools. This mentality shortchanges Pennsylvania’s students.
For decades, we’ve tried it the governor’s way. The vast majority of education spending is directed to district schools. Education spending is at an all-time high—total school district spending reached $30 billion in 2016-17, an increase of $2 billion from 2015-16. Only eight states allocate more money per pupil than Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, school districts have amassed $4.5 billion in total fund reserves, a one year increase of $139 million. Despite this record funding, there is no evidence of improvement in the education our kids receive.
Graphic: Pennsylvania Education Spending
If Gov. Wolf removes his blinders, he’ll see there is a simple way to provide “greater access” and “freedom of choice between public and private institutions” in the K-12 sphere the way PHEAA grants do for college. Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs empower parents to choose the K-12 education that is best for their children. These programs currently receive a tiny sliver of state funding.
Tax credit scholarships provide education choice for thousands of Pennsylvania kids at a significant savings to taxpayers. In 2016-17, the average EITC scholarship was $1,658, and the average OSTC scholarship was $2,420—compared to school district spending of $17,700 per student. As a result, the EITC alone has saved taxpayers more than $1 billion, according to an EdChoice audit.
Tragically, due to government-imposed caps on these programs, more than half of all applications—53,000 in total—were turned away by scholarship organizations in 2016-17. Fortunately, there is legislation in both chambers that would correct this problem. Senator Mike Regan’s SB 299 would boost available EITC and OSTC tax credits by 25 percent if 90 percent of credits were used the previous year. Speaker of the House Mike Turzai’s HB 800 calls for a $100M increase in EITC K-12 scholarships next year—the largest one-year increase since the program’s inception. In addition, his plan would boost available tax credits by 10 percent when 90 percent of tax credits were used the previous year.
If the governor wants to go all-in with his support of freedom of choice and innovation, education scholarship accounts (ESAs) are the path forward. With ESAs, a portion of the state’s per-pupil education funding is deposited in parent-controlled accounts to be used for a variety of approved expenses. This groundbreaking funding method is producing unique education options, such as teacher-led micro schools.
As Gov. Wolf remarked in his budget address, “The path to prosperity begins with an educated workforce.” In a world dominated by customization and choice, there is no reason that path must go through a ZIP code-assigned school.
The governor needs to take his blinders off when looking at K-12 education. By raising the limits on tax credit scholarships and supporting ESAs, the governor can allow all Pennsylvania children to follow the educational path that suits them best.