Public schools are on the sidelines as private schools pioneer the state's opportunity scholarship program in its first year, but public school officials aren't ruling out their participation in the program next year to offer students of low-achieving schools more education options.
Despite the state Legislature opening the program to public schools, the list of more than 700 schools accepting students on opportunity scholarships this year contains public schools from only four districts - none in Blair County.
"One reason we don't participate is that we don't want to overload classes," Bellwood-Antis Superintendent Brian Toth said.
Bellwood-Antis School District added a sixth kindergarten class this year, he said.
There also may not be a reason for high-achieving schools to join the program in areas where there are no low-achieving schools designated by the state on a basis of standardized test scores. In Blair County, there was just one low-achieving school and only a dozen students transferred to private schools.
Adding just a few students to classrooms on scholarships of $8,500, for regular education or $15,000 for special education could be problematic, Hollidaysburg Area School District Foundation Director Linda Russo said.
"It would wind up costing our district a lot of money if we receive just three or four students. We would have to add another teacher and that cost would be greater than the funding we receive from the program," Russo said.
But a superintendent of one of the districts receiving opportunity scholarship students is hoping to attract students from all over the state to enroll in the district's cyberschool, eliminating problems of class size and transportation.
"I'm a forward thinker, and I believe in helping kids," Superintendent Mary Todora of Neshannock Township School District in Lawrence County said.
But no students have applied to attend Neshannock schools this year. Todora said she and the school board don't know if the opportunity scholarship program will be a viable option as businesses have been slow to donate to back the scholarships.
Education foundations accepting eligible students report parents are seeking opportunity scholarships for their children, but have no money to back them.
Department of Community and Economic Development Spokesman Steve Kratz expects business donations for the second year of the program to pick up.
"We anticipated the program would take some time to get up and running," he said.
Legislature approved $50 million in tax credits in August and $40 million are still available to businesses in exchange for a donation to fund students' opportunity scholarships.
From the beginning, the Pennsylvania School Board Association was not in support of the scholarship program, PSBA spokesman Steve Robinson said.
"In the end, private schools are reimbursed by the state. It's a voucher system," he said.
But the association did not dispense information to members as to whether they should or shouldn't join, he said.
Robinson said public schools "are sitting out," this year because the law was passed in the beginning of July, too close to the start of school.
"Districts had to make a quick decision. There wasn't enough time to look fully at the program and consider the ramifications," he said. "I think there will be more districts considering it for next year."
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O'Reilly is at 946-7435.