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Lack of transfer aid delays start of Pennsylvania school program

| Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Marian Poturich thought a new state scholarship program would allow her daughter Rachel to leave her underperforming public high school for a potentially better education at a Catholic school.

Excitement turned to disappointment when she realized money for the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program, signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett in July, likely won't be available this school year.

“I felt they jumped the gun,” said Poturich, 49, of McKeesport, who was planning to transfer her daughter Rachel, a junior at McKeesport Area High School, to Oakland Catholic.

The scholarship program allows students in schools at the bottom 15 percent in state achievement scores to apply for scholarships to attend higher-performing, non-charter schools. Lawmakers crafted the program as an alternative to failed plans for taxpayer-funded vouchers.

More than 242,000 students in 74 districts with schools considered to be underperforming based on the 2010-11 Pennsylvania System of School Assessments exams are eligible. Western Pennsylvania has 19 such districts.

Districts with underperforming schools sent letters to parents informing them of the scholarship program, causing confusion about when the scholarships would start.

The law requires receiving districts to raise money for each transfer through donations from businesses that will get a tax credit. The state set aside $50 million in tax credits for businesses approved by the Department of Community and Economic Development.

Some parents expected the money would come automatically from the state, but the program does not offer “immediate salvation for a lot of kids in low-performing schools,” said Ronald Bowes, who oversees the program's fund for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

“I tell them to be a little bit patient. They're probably going to have to go to their school another year or six months,” Bowes said.

Parents of about 300 students in Allegheny County told the diocese they plan to transfer their children to Catholic schools, Bowes said.

For families with household income no greater than $60,000 a year, plus $12,000 for each dependent, scholarships of up to $8,500 for non-special education students and $15,000 for special education students will be available.

Jack Parkes of Beechview anticipated the funds would help offset tuition for children who already attend private schools.

“It's a hollow victory,” said Parkes, whose son is a senior at Seton-La Salle High School in Mt. Lebanon rather than Brashear High School in Beechview. “I believe in the approach, not necessarily just because it would have helped me, though it would have been nice.”

The confusion annoyed some educators. Wayde Killmeyer, Clairton City superintendent, called the law “ill-conceived and poorly executed.”

“The program's many flaws have dissuaded the families that initiated the two or three inquiries that we received,” he said.

Businesses began applying for the program and the tax credits in early August. Steve Kratz, a spokesman for Community and Economic Development, said the agency approved several applications. Businesses have 60 days from approval to make a donation.

Jonathan Cetel, executive director of the Pennsylvania Campaign for Achievement Now, an education group based in Philadelphia, said because the guidelines for the law weren't available until August, “it was never realistic to expect the funds to be raised in time for this school year.

“I am confident that the business community will step up and that thousands of low-income students will receive scholarships to attend private and out-of-district public schools next year,” he said.

Only five public schools — all in the Freedom Area School District in Beaver — are on the list of approved receiving schools in Western Pennsylvania. Freedom Superintendent Jeffrey Fuller said the district participated because the scholarship amounts are comparable to state tuition rates for students in the district.

Though Pittsburgh Public Schools has 27 schools labeled as low-performing, spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said district officials are “not really sure what to anticipate” once students can transfer.

“There may be parents that take advantage of that opportunity. It's hard to know the impact,” she said.

Poturich said even if money becomes available for the program for the 2013-14 school year, she would hesitate to transfer her daughter during her senior year.

“I just hope they're able to get it together and people can take advantage of it,” Poturich said.

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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