The state legislature approved tens of millions of dollars in tax credits this summer for businesses to fund a scholarship program to help children in low-achieving schools - but businesses have been slow to take advantage of them.
That means that families of students who are eligible for private school tuition help are paying for tuition this year in hopes of receiving assistance down the line.
"Families are calling from across the state, looking for any foundation with money," said Shirrell Burton, director of development for the POISE Foundation, a Pittsburgh-based community foundation. "We don't anticipate giving out any scholarships until next school year."
Low-achieving public schools are defined as public elementary or secondary schools ranking in the bottom 15 percent of the state's schools based on math and reading PSSA scores. The list was released in July and included Wright Elementary School in the Altoona Area School District. Letters of eligibility for opportunity scholarships were subsequently sent to parents of children residing in those areas.
But $40 million of the $50 million in tax credits available since August are still available in exchange for business donations to approved scholarship foundations, a Department of Economic and Community Development spokesman said.
"As far as we can tell from talking with opportunity scholarship-approved agencies, there has been very high demand from families widespread throughout Pennsylvania for the opportunity scholarship," DCED spokesman Steve Kratz said.
Kratz said the department anticipated that it would take time for the program to take off.
A dozen students have transferred from Wright Elementary School. Seven transferred to private schools in the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and five transferred to Great Commission Schools, according to spokesmen for the schools.
The diocese secured funding for the first few students who transferred from Wright, but others were told they would be obligated to pay tuition if they enrolled, according to the diocese.
Chris Ringkamp, director of development for the diocese, said he continues to seek funding by sending letters to businesses making them aware of the state's available tax credits.
"I'm really surprised that businesses in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh haven't clamored for the tax credits," he said.
The maximum scholarship amount is $8,500 for a student without a disability and $15,000 for a student with a disability.
Great Commission Superintendent Kim Salyards said the school has also secured some business donations that are to be available in the next 60 days to fund the Wright students who transferred as well as three others who couldn't afford another year of tuition without the opportunity scholarship.
"The board felt it was reasonable to let the children come with good assurance from the community foundation that the money would come," Salyards said.
She said the area's approved opportunity scholarship foundation, the Blair County Community Foundation, which the school tapped into for funding, didn't have enough funding for Salyards to accept any more students. Only one student was turned away, she said.