Lawmakers & Businesses Can Rescue Students Now

If lawmakers were in any doubt about how dire Pennsylvania’s education crisis has become, they need only look to Harrisburg mother Taisha Bartow and her 5-year-old daughter, Alayaisha. Faced with a deeply indebted Harrisburg school district ready to ax its kindergarten program, and unable to afford private school, Bartow has been forced into a heartbreaking decision to give up partial custody to the child’s godmother and move her daughter to Baltimore.

When parents have to move their children across state lines just to find a decent school, we have exited the realm of patience and entered into a crisis. Contrary to popular belief, this is not a problem borne of cuts to K-12 spending. In the last 15 years, spending has doubled to $26 billion a year-averaging $15,000 a student-while student scores have flat-lined. Results in Harrisburg are worse, and have been for years.  Only two-thirds of students can read or do math at their grade level.   Bartow’s eldest son won a ticket out-a  scholarship to a private school-but her ‘A’-student younger son remains stuck in Harrisburg, bored in classes that move too slowly for his ability.

Sadly, Bartow is not alone. From Philadelphia to Erie, children are assigned to failing schools simply because of the digits in their ZIP code. Like Harrisburg, only about two-thirds of the 82,000 children in our worst 140 public schools are proficient in reading and math-and they endured a frightening 10,000 violent incidents from 2008-2010, translating to one every 17 minutes.

But there is a way to throw these families an immediate lifeline, by reaching a legislative compromise and passing a bill that expands the number of businesses tax credits for donating scholarship money. It’s a program Pennsylvania already has, called the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, and has proved immensely popular with families since its passage in 2001.

Currently, the EITC now serves 40,000 students, but is already maxed out.  With a current credit cap of $75 million, there simply aren’t enough scholarships to serve all the kids who need aid.  For instance, the Children’s Scholarship Fund in Philadelphia turns away more than 7,000 students seeking help each year.

Concerned lawmakers are introducing school choice legislation that would expand the EITC program and offer additional credits for opportunity scholarships, giving more parents throughout Pennsylvania the opportunity to choose the best school for their child.  Additionally, a new Education Improvement Scholarship Credit would offer families an immediate escape from violent and failing schools.  The EISC would allow businesses to fund scholarships specifically for students in the lowest performing schools in the state. 

These popular programs have demonstrated success across the country for nearly 20 years.   According to a Friedman Foundation review, nine of 10 “gold standard” studies of opportunity scholarships in other states show that either some or all students who received them did better at school.  And 19 of 20 academically rigorous studies show that opportunity scholarships improve public schools too, by raising academic achievement through competition.

In addition to saving students in failing schools, scholarship tax credits save taxpayers money. Scholarships would educate students for a fraction of the $15,000 we spend per student in school districts.  In fact, the average EITC scholarship amount is around $1,100. Altogether, more than 300,000 students take advantage of less expensive charter, cyber, private and home school options, saving taxpayers $4.3 billion a year.

The vital rescue operation of children in our worst schools would save taxpayers in another way-in future welfare and incarceration spending.  According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.,-based policy group, high school dropouts are more likely to go to prison (at $35,000 per inmate in Pennsylvania), or to participate in programs such as Medicaid.  An Obama administration study earlier this year found that a youth who neither works nor graduates costs taxpayers $250,000 over his or her lifetime.  

Bartow has been putting off her trip to Baltimore, dreading the tears she knows she’ll shed when she lets go of Alayaisha. A scholarship could prevent the wrenching separation of mother and daughter, and help families like the Bartows across Pennsylvania. The time to act is now, before we lose more Alayaishas.

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Otto Banks is the executive director of the REACH Foundation, Pennsylvania’s grassroots coalition dedicated to ensuring parental choice in education, and Priya Abraham is a senior policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.