HARRISBURG – The Senate Education Committee voted 6-5 Monday to almost double the amount of tax credits available to fund scholarships for students to attend private schools or transfer out of poorly-performing public schools.

The legislation, Senate Bill 1, would increase the amount available for Educational Improvement Tax Credits, which provide scholarships for students to attend private schools from $185 million to $300 million. It also would increase the amount available for Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credits, which provide scholarships for students to transfer from one of the 385 schools in Pennsylvania designated as low-performing to other public schools or private schools from $55 million to $100 million.

The legislation is sponsored by state Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

In addition to increasing the funding available for students to change schools, the legislation would also make changes to the state law governing charter schools, including requiring that traditional public schools allow charter schools to use their buildings for standardized tests and create a state appeals board to consider charter school applications.

Democrats and school groups blasted the measure.

“We should be investing in education rather than diverting resources for vouchers,” said state Sen. Carolyn Comitta, D-Chester.

Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, said the bill would result “in the largest transfer of taxpayer dollars out of public schools in Pennsylvania’s history.”

Under the tax credit programs, businesses that donate to scholarship funds can get tax breaks.

“This bill will also provide a massive increase in tax breaks for corporations that contribute to private and religious schools. While public schools are lucky to get a funding increase on the order of 2% to 3% in any given year, this bill will give these tax break programs a whopping 68% increase next year and provide 25% increases each year after. Within five years, these tax break programs would grow to nearly $1 billion, and in 10 years the cost would triple to $3 billion,” Askey said.

But proponents said the legislation would expand tax credit programs that have been extremely popular.

“One of the most important things is how many people want it,” said state Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre.

Providing the scholarships helps families afford the school of their choosing regardless of where they live, Corman said.

“We are giving kids the opportunity to go to the schools they think are best for them,” he said.

The Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank, pointed to data showing that in 2018-19, the two tax credit programs helped provide 60,387 scholarships for students while another 42,918 students applied for scholarships but were denied because the scholarships funds were exhausted.

“It is unfortunate to see teachers’ union leaders and taxpayer-funded lobbyists – who benefit financially from the status quo – opposing these reforms,” said Nathan Benefield, Commonwealth Foundation vice president. “We call on the Pa. General Assembly and the governor to see past this antagonism and join together in supporting what parents want for their children, rather than constraining them.”

Martin said that now that the measure has passed out of committee, he expects negotiations with lawmakers and the governor to continue before the bill continues to move through the General Assembly.

Wolf has been calling on lawmakers to pass reforms to the way charter schools are funded.

The rising cost of charter schools is draining funding from traditional public schools and forcing school districts to cut education programs and raise property raises. At the same time, many charter schools are underperforming. The urgent need for reform has led to more than 400 school boards, greater than 80% in the state, to pass resolutions calling for charter school reform.

The governor’s proposal would dictate that Pennsylvania funds charter schools to match actual costs rather than forcing school districts to overpay. The estimated $395 million a year in savings include $185 million by funding special education in charter schools the same way the state does for all other public schools and $210 million a year by establishing a statewide cyber charter school tuition rate, according to the governor’s office.

“This plan isn’t about cutting funding – it’s about realigning what taxpayers pay with what it costs to provide a charter education to students. It’s about ensuring that every school, both charter and traditional, has the resources to give students the education they deserve,” Wolf said last week. 

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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