Pa. tax credit aid for schools off to a slow start

Posted: September 04, 2012

Gov. Corbett's education agenda and Pennsylvania's school-choice movement got a big boost in late June when the legislature targeted up to $50 million in business-tax credits to help students living near low-achieving public schools attend private schools or public schools in other districts.

But the new Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program has gotten off to a slow start. As most schools prepare to open this week, only $10 million in tax credits have been snapped up by businesses.

Also, schools and other nonprofit scholarship organizations that distribute the money to students have yet to receive notice of how much they will receive. Some scholarship groups say it will be a full year before much of the money finds its way to students.

And the list of participating schools is not yet complete.

There is certainly intense interest in the program, which gives businesses tax credits for donations that fund scholarships.

Many schools and scholarship organizations have been deluged with aid requests from public school parents, especially since districts with low-achieving schools sent out notices about the scholarships in mid-August.

"I get calls and e-mails constantly," said Kelly Grattan, development director at the Gesu School, an independent Catholic school in Philadelphia. "They're coming from as far away as Altoona and Pittsburgh," even though the school only serves the North Philadelphia area. "Parents are desperate."

Many of those pleas seem likely to go unanswered, however, at least for the coming school year. Most of the money will probably go instead to students already attending private schools.

Grattan, for example, said Gesu was at full enrollment, with a long waiting list. So the school's Opportunity Scholarship funds will instead boost the overall pool of aid money for current students, many of whom come from low-income families, she said.

Also, many scholarship organizations that will get Opportunity money said they work a year ahead, getting aid applications in the spring from parents who want their children to attend private school the following fall. It will be difficult, they said, for many students to transfer from public to private school once classes begin. "The process hasn't caught up with the demand yet," said Dennis Walsh, board president of the Bravo Foundation, which received more than $1 million last year from the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, an older and larger state scholarship effort.

Ina Lipman, executive director of the Children's Scholarship Fund Philadelphia, a large EITC recipient, said her organization was in limbo with the new program until it knows how much money it will get and can start accepting applications. "We've gotten hundreds of requests," she said. "It breaks my heart that I can't do anything. I try to walk families through what their next step should be and tell them to hang tight."

One school where students may benefit immediately from Opportunity Scholarships is Drexel Neumann Academy, an independent Catholic school in Chester. All schools in the Chester Upland District are on the low-achieving list.

Sister Margaret Gannon, the academy's president, said the 190-student school, which has gotten EITC money in past years, would get at least $37,500 in Opportunity Scholarship money this year from a local pharmacy and medical-supply business. There are still openings in some grades, she said, adding: "We're so grateful for this new opportunity."

The Opportunity program is much like the EITC, which has been in operation since 2001.

Both give tax credits of up to 90 percent for corporate donations of up to $400,000 to designated scholarship organizations. The total amount for the EITC program was increased by $25 million this year, to $100 million; $70 million goes to scholarships, the rest to public school enrichment programs.

The Opportunity Scholarship program differs from the EITC in several ways, however. It is limited to students living in the attendance area of the lowest-performing 15 percent of public schools in Pennsylvania, not including charter schools. That list has 414 schools; 158 of them are in Philadelphia. There are 34 other low-achieving schools in nine other Philadelphia-area districts: Bristol Township in Bucks County, Chester Upland, Chichester, Ridley, Southeast Delco, Upper Darby and William Penn in Delaware County, and Norristown and Pottstown in Montgomery County.

Scholarships for the new program are limited to $8,500 for each regular education student and $15,000 for each special-education student. Family income eligibility limits are the same in both programs - $60,000, with an additional $12,000 for each additional student in the household. But the Opportunity Scholarship program sets additional priorities for which students get the money. Preference is given to those in Philadelphia, the Chester Upland School District, Duquesne in Western Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, and York City. Students who qualify for reduced-price lunches ($44,643 for a family of four, for example) also get preference.

Schools have to sign up to participate in the Opportunity Scholarship program, unlike the EITC, through which all private schools can get scholarship money. And public schools can participate by establishing a special tuition rate for students from outside their districts. So far, 12 schools in four districts, none in the Philadelphia area, have signed up, along with 638 private schools. Several hundred more schools are still awaiting approval, state Education Department spokesman Tim Eller said.


Contact Dan Hardy at 601-313-8134, dhardy@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @DanInq.

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