Al Gnoza

There is a bill in the works in Harrisburg to automatically increase the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs. That is welcome news to Catholic schools, students and parents across Pennsylvania.

“This will offer a lifeline to thousands of additional students who are turned away from tax credit fund scholarship programs each year,” wrote state Sen. Mike Regan in a memo to colleagues looking for co-sponsors. The Cumberland County Republican is looking to revive Senate Bill 1204, which will automatically increase the EITC and the OSTC caps by 25 percent each year.

The bill failed last year, but backers expect it to have a lot of support in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

“I’ll be looking to increase the EITC by $25 million to $50 million,” said state Sen. Tom Killion of Chester County, who co-sponsored SB 1204 last year and is a product of Catholic education. “That’s one of the reasons I’m supporting the EITC and OSTC programs.”

The programs are “widely successful,” said state Rep. Jesse Topper of the 78th District in South-central Pennsylvania, and they benefit “the businesses, communities they serve and also the schools.

“We’re helping businesses who believe in school choice options and want to contribute to our Catholic and private schools, whether they are Catholic or any other religious or secular institution,” he said.

The EITC even helps all private school students regardless if they are eligible for the EITC or OSTC programs by keeping tuition costs more accessible to families throughout the state.

Regan, Topper and Killion are all Republicans, but they point to bipartisan support for increasing EITC, which has received funding increases in recent years regardless of which political party has been in power.

The tax-credit tuition programs enable children to enroll in a school that offers the best curriculum to meet their needs, and to continue their education at a private school.

I recently visited SS. Peter and Paul School outside of West Chester. The school’s Advancement Director Barbara Downing told me they have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the EITC and OSTC programs. She said that money is currently helping 63 of the school’s 371 students.

Many legislators firmly support the EITC, OSTC and other programs that support children attending private schools.

In Gov. Tom Wolf’s recent budget address he called for $200 million more for basic education funding and $50 million more for special education funding. But there are no increases for the two line items that provide services to private school students.

“We are disappointed with the governor’s proposed budget because there is not the historical parity seen in education spending,” said Sean McAleer, the education director for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference. “The private school students deserve better. If the public school students receive an increase in their state-appropriated funds, then private school students should receive the same increase.

“In Pa.’s school code, which is hundreds of pages, there are two line items for private school students. The first line item is textbooks that are secular in nature … the second one is auxiliary services that assist students with special needs. Both of those items have been level funded for the last four years,” McAleer said.

Regan points out that in 2011 Pennsylvania awarded more tax credit scholarships than any other state, providing 40,000 scholarships to school children in the state and their families.

That same year, he said, Florida awarded only 34,550. Now with the automatic escalator provisions, Florida awarded nearly 107,000 scholarships last year — more than double Pennsylvania’s 48,989.

In addition, more than 50,000 tax credit scholarships to students were denied along with many businesses placed on waiting lists for the EITC and OSTC program here in Pennsylvania.

***

Al Gnoza is communications director for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the public affairs agency of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania.