House panel passes boost to private school aid

Legislation would increase funds for education choice

The House Education Committee has Monday approved a bill to double the amount of tax credits available to help students to attend the school of their choice.

House Bill 800, sponsored by House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, would increase the amount of tax credits available under the Educational Im­provement Tax Credit program to $210 million, a $100 million increase.

Education committee member Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, said the scholarships are typically used in parochial schools.

The committee’s 14-8 vote sets the stage to make expanding the EITC tax credit part of the House Majority Republican Caucus agenda for the Fiscal Year 2019-20 state budget debate.

Under the EITC program, businesses are eligible for a tax credit on their state tax payment if they contribute to a scholarship organization, educational improvement organization or pre-kindergarten scholarship organization.

Students in turn receive scholarships from these organizations to help them offset the tuition charged by schools outside their home school district.

The bill also would add an automatic escalator to the program, increasing the EITC scholarship cap by 10 percent, whenever 90 percent of the tax credits were claimed in the prior years. The bill would increase the maximum annual household income for scholarship eligibility by $10,000 to $95,000.

It would require a scholarship organization to spend at least 90 percent — the current threshold is 80 percent — of its donations on scholarships and education programs.

Advocates for and against the legislation quickly reacted to the committee’s party-line vote Monday.

“It is deeply disappointing that the House Education Committee passed HB 800, legislation that provides an additional $100 million to subsidize the private/religious education of wealthy families through the Educational Improvement Tax Credit private/religious school voucher program,” said Susan Spicka, executive director of the group Education Voters of PA, in a statement. “If this becomes law, the cost for this program will total $210 million in 2019-20 plus $50 million for Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit school vouchers.”

She noted the escalator clause in the proposed bill could, in just 10 years, “bring the cost of EITC vouchers to an eye-popping $544,685,917” on top of the OSTC cost.

Turzai said that providing more non-public school choice options for students is a priority of his caucus and expanding the tax credits will help do that. He argued more EITC funding is needed because last year half of the scholarship applications in Pennsylvania were denied.

Topper said last week, “It’s not like we (the Legislature) are writing a check. It allows businesses in the commonwealth to contribute an additional hundred million,” Topper said. “We are finding this program to be successful. We want to encourage public-private partnerships. It’s not just government investing but local business too, in order to improve lives of students, and I’m all for it.”

The state currently caps tax credit scholarship programs — EITC and OSTC — at a combined $172.5 million per year.

Topper said, “We are absolutely increasing money for public schools, too,” he said. “That’s in the budget.”

Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed budget includes $6.5 billion for the 2019-20 Basic Education Funding appropriation, a $200, million increase.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.