Governor Wolf surprised no one when he vetoed a sorely needed expansion of Pennsylvania’s scholarship program, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit. But he disappointed thousands.
While the governor has repeatedly voiced support for freeing students from zip code-assigned schools that aren’t meeting their needs, he disparaged this scholarship program and questioned its legitimacy. Thankfully, lawmakers are poised to fix Wolf’s mistake.
Tax credit scholarships help primarily low-income families afford a better education in a private school. The scholarships are funded by private donations from community-minded businesses and individuals. In return, donors receive a state tax credit of 75 or 90 percent of their donation.
About 50,000 scholarships were awarded last year. But caps on available tax credits mean nearly as many scholarships are denied as are approved. Demand far outstrips supply, leaving tens of thousands of students seeking an escape hatch from underperforming schools out in the cold.
Wolf had a chance to open the floodgates to educational opportunity. Instead, he barred the door.
The governor knows private schools provide a great education and can set students on a pathway to success. After all, he graduated from one—The Hill School, which today charges nearly $60,000 in tuition.
And the governor knows tax credit scholarships promote civic engagement while defraying the cost of private school tuition. The governor’s own company, the Wolf Organization, has utilized the program. Between 2001 and 2005, Wolf’s business received $54,000 in tax credits for sponsoring $60,000 in EITC scholarships, according to an open records request by the Jewish Exponent.
In short, Wolf and his business are examples of the success the EITC program hopes to achieve. Don’t others deserve the same opportunities?
Take Harrisburg parent Thalia McClenton, for example. Her son’s district school, Rowland Academy, was worse than sub-par—it was dangerous. But thanks to a tax credit scholarship, he wasn’t stuck in that environment.
Since her son started at Harrisburg Catholic last year, “His whole attitude has changed,” Thalia says. “Now he wants to be a pediatrician. I just thank God that He opened the door so my kids could have a quality education.”
Thalia’s gratitude comes through loud and clear. But what about the tens of thousands of mothers whose hopes rested on scholarship applications that were turned down?
Schools like Logos Academy in Wolf’s hometown of York specifically cater to the low-income families desperate for opportunity. Logos, a private school, reserves two-thirds of seats for students whose household incomes average just $25,000.
Aaron Anderson, Logos CEO and head of school explains: “The scholarships provided by EITC are vital to what we do. Without this program, we would not be able to serve these kids.”
Without Logos, many of the students they serve would have little choice but to attend York City School District, often ranked among the worst-performing districts in the state.
Shouldn’t our goal be to help more schools replicate Logos’ success and serve even more students in need?
But opponents, like Wolf, claim tax credit scholarships take funding away from public schools. The truth is, the EITC and a smaller companion program called the Opportunity Scholarships Tax Credit have saved public schools between $3 and $5 billion since 2002, according to a new EdChoice analysis. These programs educate students at a fraction of the cost of public schools, allowing school districts to reduce class sizes and spend more money per student.
Even without the cost savings, though, rescuing students by expanding the EITC would still be worth it.
While Wolf’s veto of tax credit scholarship expansion bill HB 800 was a setback, the fight for students’ futures isn’t over. As state budget negotiations heat up, legislative leaders like Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre County) and House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster County) can stand up for students and demand a dramatic increase for tax credit scholarship programs.
High quality, private education shouldn’t be limited to the wealthy or the well-connected. It’s time for lawmakers to fix the governor’s mistake and open the door to opportunity for every child who comes knocking.
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Charles Mitchell is President and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.