Non-public schools in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania received a nice financial boost in the state budget for fiscal year 2019-20 as part of an amendment to the school code as proposed by House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) and signed by Gov. Tom Wolf on June 28.

The Educational Improvement Tax Credit program (EITC) was increased by $25 million this year to a total of $135 million. This is on top of a $25 million increase in last year’s budget for a two-year total increase of $50 million.

Under the EITC program Pennsylvania does not give funds directly to the participating schools because, with few exceptions, state funding to religious-sponsored schools would violate the state constitution as amended in a time of particular religious bigotry in the late 19th century. Although the Blaine Amendment, as it was known, was passed with Catholic schools in mind, it affected all religious schools and indirectly any non-public school.

Just about the only opposition to this year’s EITC increase was the public school lobby, according to sources.

The EITC program gives state tax credits mostly to businesses that donate to approved SOs (Scholarship Organizations) that in turn give scholarships to students in non-public schools.

While the donating business cannot designate a specific student it can designate a specific school. By doing this the state is not taking money from its $8.3 billion K-12 education budget, it is just collecting less money for its General Fund and it has no contact with the receiving schools.

The state gives a 75 percent tax credit for donations up to $750,000 per taxable year to EITCs. If the donor makes a two-year commitment the tax credit rises to 90 percent.

In addition there is an Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program (OSTC) of $37.5 million that targets children living within the boundaries of a low-achieving public school or an economically disadvantaged school for use at another public or private school.

There is also a pre-K program funded at $12.5 million, according to figures proved by Sean McAleer, director of the Education Department of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC).

At last count there were 267 SOs scattered around the state, and the largest by far is right here in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. It is BLOCS (Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools), which goes back long before the EITC program was created in 2001.

Within the archdiocese most diocesan high schools and elementary schools participate in the EITC by using BLOCS as their SO. While BLOCS has other fundraising means, its participation in EITC is staggering.

Last year it gave out $42 million in grants, according to its executive director, Bill O’Brien. He estimates it could have given out $40-$50 million more if the EITC quota permitted, because the demand was so great.

“We gave about 20,000 kids an average grant of $2,000,” he said. “Without this, surely more families would not have been able to send their kids to Catholic school and more schools would close.”

Of their EITC funds, Catholic schools are receiving about 75 percent of the grants, he estimates, with other religious schools and nonsectarian schools getting the balance. That is because many large donors direct a part of their funds that way.

Another relatively large scholarship organization in the Philadelphia area is the Media-based Foundation for Catholic Education, which distributes about $3 million annually, mostly to elementary schools.

Other state changes that affect non-public schools, according to McAleer, include $3.2 million allocated to public and non-public schools to address school violence. There are also grants through local Intermediate Units for the purpose of telepresence equipment.

Direct services at non-public schools that were considered within the limits of the state constitution were level funded without increase at $88 million. Also level funded was $27 million for textbooks.

Still under consideration but not yet approved is funding for nursing services at non-public schools.

Also, starting with the 2019-2020 school year, public and non-public schools may apply for up to five days when students can work from home. Think snow days if known in advance. This can be done from computers or assignments handed out in advance. From the kids’ (and the teachers’) perspective this could mean no make-up days at the end of the year.

Another non-monetary item on the governor’s agenda, agreed to in the budget, was the lowering of the mandatory age for starting school to 6 years old from the current 8 years old, as well as raising the permissible dropout age to 18 from the current 17.