State Capitol

Lawmakers Mull Expanded Education Tax Credit

Potential education reforms are being debated under the capitol dome ahead of Saturday’s state budget deadline.  One of them would expand the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program with a sub-program that targets low-income families in the state’s worst performing schools.  It was characterized at Monday’s House Education Committee hearing as “EITC 2.0.”

While the existing EITC program has long enjoyed bipartisan support, critics are characterizing the proposed expansion as a school vouchers program.  “85% – 90% of the kids who would get those vouchers are already in private schools,” says minority education chairman James Roebuck (D-Philadelphia).  “It’s not a means to get kids out of so-called failing public schools… it’s a subsidy to private education.” 

But the bill’s prime sponsor says it’s irresponsible to characterize his effort as school vouchers.  “Despite the fact that the student leaves to go to another school, their state, local and federal dollars remain in that classroom – thus elevating significantly the per-pupil spend of those classrooms they are leaving,” explains state Rep. Jim Christiana (R-Beaver).  He tells the House Education Committee the scholarships would be funded by businesses that choose to participate in the tax credit program.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) opposes the bill, because they say it would siphon valuable dollars from the General Fund at a time when school districts are struggling.

While it appears the push is on to pass an expanded EITC along with the state budget, Republican chairman Paul Clymer (R-Bucks) characterized the bill as a work-in-progress.

Capitol View from East Wing

Senate Approves Education Reform Bill

A revamped version of SB 1 attempts to address three of the four tenets of the governor’s education reform agenda.  Throughout hours of Senate debate, Wednesday, there appeared to be broad support for the expansion of Educational Improvement Tax Credits and updates to the state’s charter school law.  However, a school vouchers program proved controversial.  

“Over 90% of the kids are still going to be at the old school,” said Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery).  “They are just going to have less resources to try to eke out an education.”  

The amended voucher program in SB 1 would make the per-student state education subsidy available to low-income students, in the worst-performing 5% of schools, to help them attend the public or private school of their choice.  Students whose families earn up to 130% of the federal poverty guidelines would receive a full voucher, while students whose families earn up to 185% of the federal poverty guidelines would be eligible for three-quarters of the per-student state subsidy.  The impacted schools are located primarily in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Allentown, Pittsburgh and Reading. 

“If this bill was a bill that would require statewide vouchers, I would vote against it,” said Democratic Education Chairman Andy Dinniman (D-Chester).  “But this bill is a very limited bill that is aimed to help students in 143 buildings in this commonwealth, out of thousands of school buildings in this commonwealth.”

 The bill ultimately passed 27 to 22,and now heads to the House.  Governor Tom Corbett has not yet endorsed SB 1, but says he has been working with lawmakers behind the scenes. 


Vouchers: The Most Controversial of the Education Reforms

School choice is not a new issue in PA, and it was no surprise when Governor Corbett included school vouchers in his education reform agenda. In fact, several protesters gathered in York in anticipation of what they were about to hear.  “65% of Pennsylvanians do not support using public money to pay private school tuition and only 11% of Pennsylvanians strongly support a voucher program,” says Cumberland County parent Susan Spicka.  “If the majority of Pennsylvanians do not support vouchers, I don’t know why he does.”  Spicka was citing a recent poll released by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA).    

The Corbett plan calls for opportunity scholarships to be made available to low-income students in the worst performing 5% of schools.  The Opportunity Scholarship Program would allow eligible students to use state tax dollars to help pay tuition at the public or private school of their choice.  “What moves to the new school is the state subsidy, the old school still keeps its taxes in their school district,” Corbett says.  Students whose families earn 130% of the federal poverty level would be eligible for the full scholarship.  “To give that to you in dollars and cents,” Corbett says, “That’s a family of four earning $29,000.”  Students whose families earn 185% of the federal poverty level would be eligible for 75% of the scholarships. 

Opponents say vouchers don’t work.  “Vouchers, as proposed, would still leave a large number of students in those underperforming buildings,” says PSBA Director of Research Services, David Davare, who released a new research paper touting alternatives to raise student achievement in underperforming schools. 

“The issue is not that vouchers don’t work, the issue is the current system doesn’t work,” says Otto Banks, executive director of the REACH Alliance & Foundation, who says many students are trapped in failing schools simply because of their ZIP code.  “Vouchers are simply a means to an end,” Banks tells Radio PA.  “It gives a child an opportunity, or access to a quality education.”  REACH strongly supports the governors’ education reform agenda.

Governor Tom Corbett

Corbett Unveils School Reform Agenda

The new education paradigm that Governor Tom Corbett envisions would put students first.  While visiting the Lincoln Charter School in York, Corbett put forth a four point plan that he wants to see implemented in time for the 2012-2013 school year. 

It starts with a revamped charter school law in Pennsylvania.  “My plan calls for a state commission to approve and to oversee the charter schools of Pennsylvania,” Corbett says, adding that the commission of experts would also have the power to pull the plug on charter schools that aren’t meeting educational standards. 

Controversial school vouchers also make an appearance, but they would only apply to low-income students in the lowest performing 5% of PA’s schools.  “Students whose families earn 130% or less of the federal poverty rate would be eligible for these scholarships,” Corbett says.  “To give that to you in dollars and cents, that’s a family of four earning $29,000.”  Students who come from families earning slightly more would be eligible for a portion of the so-called opportunity scholarships. 

The new teacher evaluation program that Corbett envisions would include student performance.  “Right now the evaluation system is merely a rubber stamp, and it must change if our students are going to be the beneficiaries of good, committed educators,” Corbett says.  The current system allows only for a satisfactory or unsatisfactory rating.  The new system that’s currently being piloted would allow for ratings that range from distinguished and proficient, to needs improvement and failing.

The state House has already passed a bill that encompasses Corbett’s fourth goal of expanding the Educational improvement Tax Credit (EITC), which is awarded to businesses that fund scholarships and other educational improvements. 

Corbett concluded that he’s not happy with the status quo.  “When we have failing schools, we have failing students,” he says, pointing to the School District of Philadelphia’s 45% drop out rate.  Reaction to the Corbett agenda is rapidly pouring in; check back later for a recap.