School choice tax credit expansion bill touted
State leaders from both political parties threw their support behind a bill Thursday that would expand tax credit programs providing public dollars for those who qualify to attend schools, including private ones, outside of their regular public school.
Legislators, including House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, attended a luncheon at LeMont restaurant hosted by Pittsburgh Catholic Bishop David Zubik to thank lawmakers who are supportive of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program.
Allison Bridgett-Jones, 41, of the North Side received about $2,000 this year to help pay her son's tuition at Bishop Canevin High School. His home school is Perry Traditional Academy.
“Without this, my son wouldn't have this opportunity,” Bridgett-Jones said. “It's a good quality, faith-based education. Once we visited Canevin, I knew this was the school for us.”
The Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program, in existence since 2001, allows businesses to receive a tax credit — a reduction in actual taxes paid — if they designate money to any of 1,270 approved organizations with an educational component. Businesses get a 75 percent reduction for a one-year donation and a 90 percent tax credit for a two-year commitment up to $750,000 annually. It is unclear how much of that money goes to private schools.
The Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program is similar except the contributions provide tuition assistance to students residing within the boundaries of a low-achieving school who wish to attend another school. State statistics show that businesses in the OSTC program can donate to 182 organizations that in turn dole out money to students attending 869 schools, 98 percent of which are private.
A bill in the House would increase the combined budget for the programs from $150 million in tax credits annually to $250 million annually.
A spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, called the program “back-door tuition vouchers” and said there's a lack of accountability because the state doesn't track whether participating students improve.
“In other words, taxpayers pay 75 to 90 percent of all the funds. That's revenue to the Pennsylvania general fund that is lost,” PSEA spokesman Wythe Keever said. “It's not hard to understand how a program like this becomes popular — politicians get to hand out checks.”
Costa and Turzai defended the program.
“I think this is more of a program to benefit students and the business community. It's a win-win,” Costa said. “It's not full-blown school choice. It's providing options and programs for some students.”
Turzai said the program “is a school-choice approach” that gives families opportunities to decide what's best for their children.
Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or firstname.lastname@example.org.