Educational Tax Credits: A Discredit to Public Schools?
State budget item furthers discrimination in education using taxpayer dollars
The Commonwealth Court recently ruled Pennsylvania's funding for education is unconstitutional, prompting Governor Josh Shapiro to invest more than ever in education.
Pennsylvania's budget — signed on Dec. 13 — includes a $567 million increase in basic education funding. Shapiro highlighted a $150 million increase in funding for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs. Last year, the programs received $405 million.
To overcome a budget impasse, Shapiro made decisions to appease both sides of the aisle in a split legislature. However, that decision may further discrimination as taxpayer dollars are slated for private schools rather than equitable public education.
The EITC funding, managed by Pennsylvania's Department of Community and Economic Development, provides tax credits to businesses when they support education through local nonprofits. Examples of area EITC recipients are Early Connections, Asbury Woods, Erie Art Museum, Erie Philharmonic, Erie Zoo, and the expERIEnce Children's Museum.
Erie Insurance is one of the donors that finds it beneficial to support local nonprofits through the EITC program. "While public-private partnerships such as Pennsylvania's EITC program benefit our company's bottom line, the EITC program allows us to expand the reach of our philanthropic support and increase the impact of each dollar donated," Ann Scott, Erie Insurance's community outreach manager, said in a media statement in April.
On the other hand, the private-public partnership is not always favorable, and this type of funding has been criticized.
Opponents of the governor's school funding plan feel some allocations wrongfully take money intended for public schools and funnel it to private — sometimes religious — schools under the guise of "opportunity" and "educational improvement."
OSTC funding, another tax credit program, goes partially toward scholarship vouchers. The commonwealth defines scholarship vouchers as any form of public payment to help parents send their children to nonpublic schools when the family lives in a district determined to be in the bottom 15 percent of public schools in Pennsylvania. The performance of schools is measured using standardized tests that are only taken at public schools, so there's no even playing field to determine if nonpublic schools would rank higher or lower.
As a result, voucher programs allow parents to choose a nonpublic school using taxpayer dollars. The benefit to certain families might come at a cost for residents of the commonwealth.
A December 2023 report from Education Voters of Pennsylvania investigated 159 OSTC voucher-funded schools and found 100 percent have policies that may be discriminatory. Private schools do not have to follow the guidelines that govern public schools and ensure transparency for taxpayers about where their money goes. With a lack of transparency in policy and funding, types of discrimination may impact students based on disability, religion, academics, LGBTQIA+ status, and so forth.
In Erie County, 16 schools receive OSTC scholarship funds: Bethel Christian School of Erie, Erie First Christian Academy, Leadership Christian Academy, Luther Memorial Academy, Mercyhurst Prep, Mother Teresa, Cathedral Prep, the Erie Catholic School System (Saint James, Saint Jude, Blessed Sacrament, Erie Catholic, Our Lady of Peace, Saint George, and Saint Luke schools), and nonreligious schools Erie Day School and Montessori in the Woods.
It is not surprising that religious schools, like those under the Erie Catholic School System, follow a mission that aligns with their interpretation of Bible teachings. These positions may lead to inequitable policies at taxpayer cost.
For example, Bethel Christian School states on its website, "Marriage is the joining of one man and one woman. God intends sexual intimacy to occur only between a man and a woman who are married to each other. Furthermore, God wonderfully and immutably created each person as male and female. Rejection of one's biological sex through homosexuality, lesbianism, or bisexuality is a rejection of the image of God within that person."
The statement disadvantages students who identify with the LGBTQIA+ community.
Bethel Christian also states that a pastor should recommend the family for admission, and the school expects families to attend church regularly. Statements like this erect barriers that disadvantage students based on criteria unrelated to Pennsylvania's constitutional guarantee of providing a "thorough and efficient" education for every child.
"Bethel Christian School reserves the right to deny admission or continued attendance to any individual who cannot benefit from enrollment based on academic achievement, disqualifying handicap, or whose personal or family lifestyle is not in harmony with the stated statement of faith and purpose of Bethel Christian School," its website reads. This statement furthers evidence of policies and practices that provide taxpayer-funded support for a select group of students.
Nonpublic schools that do not receive federal funding must adhere to the guidelines outlined by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination by public accommodations and states that private institutions that serve the public must make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, and procedures that deny access to individuals with disabilities.
However, Title III does not cover religious institutions, so private schools directly operated by religious institutions are not covered by the ADA's requirement.
Mercyhurst Preparatory High School is a recipient of state-funded school vouchers for attendance; however their stated admissions requirements do not exclude students based on personal beliefs, sexual orientation, or gender identity. (Photo: Chloe Forbes)
In other schools, like Mercyhurst Prep and Cathedral Prep, students must take an academic assessment for admission.
The Reader reached out to all 16 nonpublic schools before the passage of Pennsylvania's budget to ask about policies and practices used when deciding who gets admitted with tuition vouchers, along with questions about their mission. Mercyhurst Prep was the only school to respond and was the most forthcoming on its website about admissions and policies.
While other schools did not respond to our inquiries, they will soon have to provide greater transparency for the public as new state guidelines will require nonpublic schools to report certain data.
President Joe Haas said Mercyhurst Prep is a college preparatory school, so the only admissions requirement is academic achievement. "The only admission concern we would look at, regardless of how the family intends on paying the tuition, is whether or not the student is adequately prepared for our rigorous academic environment," Haas said. "While we are a Catholic school, we do not expect nor require our students to be Catholic. We have students from multiple religious backgrounds. Additionally, our school facilities are fully accessible to students, or anyone, with disabilities, and no student is rejected or dismissed due to sexual or gender identity."
He said financial aid decisions, including EITC and OSTC funds, are made after a student's admittance to Mercyhurst Prep.
"If anything, EITC and OSTC funding provides bright, motivated students with the financial resources to attend our school when their family might not otherwise be able to provide them with this opportunity," Haas concluded.
Many nonpublic schools have scholarships for low-income families. However, students who are economically disadvantaged may be struggling in academics or have behavioral issues due to the lack of behavioral health services and the digital divide, reported as worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
While it is commendable to give parents a choice to send their children to a higher performing school that may or may not align with their moral values, critics argue that nonpublic schools don't guarantee success, and taxpayer dollars should go toward funding public schools. Instead, low-income students may slip through the cracks, and scholarship money goes toward select middle-class families for an "improved" education.
Shapiro's choice benefits nonpublic schools and families who want a choice in education, but it may have neutralized the impact of the Commonwealth Court's ruling.
In a public statement on its website, the National Education Association (NEA) states, "If we're serious about doing what's right for every child's future, let's do what works: Support public schools so that every student has inviting classrooms, modern technology and textbooks, and class sizes that are small enough for one-on-one attention."
By requiring taxpayers to fund two school systems — one private and one public — public schools once again lose funding even though they continue to educate 90 percent of students in Pennsylvania. Lack of funding contributes to larger class sizes and fewer resources, loss of extracurricular programming, and a teacher shortage.
Currently, data linking nonpublic scholarship vouchers and gains in student achievement do not exist. Vouchers, created when the U.S. Supreme Court banned school segregation during the Civil Rights era, allow private schools to admit students based on race in a way public schools could not.
Opponents of vouchers argue that by its very nature, the voucher program is discriminatory. The court ruling this summer stated that the current educational system violates the Constitution's guarantee of a "thorough and efficient" education for every child.
In a letter to Shapiro from PA Schools That Work, the activist group argued legislators should "devote all available state resources to meeting your constitutional obligation to the hundreds of thousands of public school students who are desperately trying to learn in under-resourced schools."
While nobody seems to argue that funding education is wrong or wasteful, there is a discrepancy about what the "best" model looks like and how partnerships could fill the gap. After all the political statements are said and done, there remains an underlying lack of funding for true public education, undermining the Commonwealth Court decision and furthering inequity among students in our region.
Chloe Forbes is a local journalist. Reach her at email@example.com.