Families and students in the nation’s capital won big over the weekend, as Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) secured language to reauthorize and expand the acclaimed D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program as part of the long-term continuing resolution. This week, legislators not too far north in Pennsylvania have the opportunity to expand school choice for students in their state.
Just yesterday, Pennsylvania’s Senate Appropriations Committee passed a bill—The Opportunity Scholarship Act—to extend school choice under Pennsylvania’s existing Educational Improvement Tax Credit program. In the next day or two, a floor vote is expected. Currently available to low- and middle-income students, the expanded EITC (not to be confused with the federal Earned Income Tax Credit) would raise the family income level so that more children would be eligible to attend a private school of their choice. Additionally, the legislation would provide state-funded opportunity scholarships to low-income students who attend the state’s lowest-performing schools.
Since 2001, Pennsylvania’s EITC program has opened the door for low-income students to attend private schools of their choice by providing tax credits to businesses that donate to eligible scholarship-granting organizations. Eligible students are then able to apply to the organizations for a scholarship, which they can use at participating private schools. There is a high level of demand—for example, the Commonwealth Foundation notes that “the Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia had 95,000 applications for the 7,700 scholarships it awarded over the last 12 years”— showing that school choice is highly prized by Pennsylvania families.
Not only does the tax credit program benefit families, but it also saves taxpayer dollars. Estimates show that Pennsylvania’s EITC program saves the state nearly $500 million each year, due to students leaving higher-cost public schools to attend lower-cost private schools. For the same reason, the newly proposed opportunity scholarships would also save taxpayer money at the local level. For example, the school district of Harrisburg spends approximately $17,000 per student, whereas the opportunity scholarships available through the program would cost only $9,000 each.
The District of Columbia saw school choice play out similarly. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program provides scholarships worth $7,500, while the D.C. public schools spend more than $18,000 per pupil annually. For less than half of what is spent in D.C. Public Schools, students in the D.C. voucher program have achieved higher graduation rates and parents are more satisfied with their children’s schools. Not surprisingly, there is a high level of community support.
Pennsylvania’s move to expand school choice is one of many efforts underway across the nation to reform education and give families greater control of their children’s academic futures. From D.C. to Florida, from the suburbs of New Jersey to the heartland of Indiana, legislators are taking action to reform education. Now Pennsylvania has its moment to expand educational options and offer the possibility of a successful future for so many of its children.