Programs

Critics say increased state tax credit for private and parochial scholarship programs lacks accountability

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — As part of the recently approved state budget, more money is being injected into a school tax credit program.

As KDKA-TV political editor Jon Delano reports, it’s a program that divides educators and policymakers.

It’s called the Education Improvement Tax Credit — or EITC — and it just received a significant boost in funding from lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf.

“We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without this program, and we’re committed to its integrity,” said Sheila Rawlings, director of development at Neighborhood Academy of Pittsburgh.

The Academy is a private school for ages 6 to 12 that welcomes African-American middle and high school students. One hundred percent of its graduates are admitted to the university. So why is the EITC important?

“It’s huge for us,” Rawlings said. “It’s actually almost a third of our budget. And those funds are specifically for scholarships for our students.”

Corporations, businesses, and individuals can get a state taxpayer-funded tax credit of up to 90 percent of their donations to certain scholarship funds that encourage students to attend private or parochial schools.

“It’s taxpayers’ money that would be spent in our public school system for private institutions,” said State Sen. Lindsey Williams, a Democrat from West View.

Williams, the senior Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, calls it a backdoor school choice voucher program because taxpayers essentially reimburse donors to private and parochial school scholarship programs.

“Now that will be $405 million a year going to private schools that should be spent on our public schools, and that will have a direct impact on your local property taxes,” Williams said.

But Nathan Benefield of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank, said the $125 million increase in funding this year is because parents want alternatives to public schools.


Tax credit to increase scholarships for private and parochial schools sparks controversy

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“While 60,000 students got scholarships last year, there were 75,000 students on waiting lists. There were scholarship applications that were turned down last year,” Benefield said.

But Williams said the program lacks accountability for how donated money is spent and whether it is really helping students.

“We have no quantitative data to determine the effectiveness and efficiency of this program in increasing educational opportunities for students,” Williams said. “It is in the original law that we are prohibited from collecting this data, so we have none.”

She said the EITC program transfers taxpayers’ money from public schools to private schools, which is something conservative groups like the Commonwealth Foundation are advocating.

“We have data on the performance of public schools. It has gone down despite increased funding. That’s not accountability at all. What really is accountability is giving parents choice. When parents choose the best school for their child, that’s where the real accountability comes in,” Benefield said.

While critics are unhappy and seek ways to improve accountability, the expanded EITC program is now law

If you want to know if your child is eligible for one of these funds, check with your private or religious school officials.