Advancing the Betsy DeVos school privatization agenda has emerged as a top budget priority for PA House members, even though this will provide very little or no benefit to the communities many rural lawmakers represent.
On a near party-line vote of 114-84, the PA House approved a budget proposal that retains the very modest $100 million increase in Basic Education Funding and the $25 million increase in special education funding that that Governor Wolf has proposed.
The House budget, however, significantly undermines support for young children and working families by cutting $50 million in funding increases for Pre-K programs proposed in Governor Wolf’s budget and providing $62 million less in Child Care Services and Assistance. The House budget also contains an $800 million deficit and slashes funding from human services, environmental protections, and other vital programs and services that support our communities.
In this context of this austere budget, it is stunning that many PA lawmakers voted for a $75 million increase in funding for the Educational Opportunity Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs. In their budget, $55 million in new EITC/OSTC funding will be dedicated to providing vouchers for private/religious schools, bringing the total taxpayer funding for private/religious school vouchers to $180 million/year.
Since the PA budget operates with a deficit, every tax dollar diverted to a private/religious school voucher creates a hole that must be filled by taking money from other programs and services.
Residents of every county will feel the impact of deep cuts in state funding to programs and services in their communities, but very few communities in many of PA’s rural counties will benefit from the EITC/OSTC voucher funding increases.
Many lawmakers justify support for vouchers claiming that they improve educational outcomes and provide poor children in low-performing schools with better educational opportunities.
However, a new, must read report from The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center demonstrates that there is no data to support these claims. The report finds that there is virtually no financial or academic performance accountability in the EITC/OSTC programs and:
- A significant amount of EITC/OSTC funding, $11.2 million, went to 23 of the most exclusive – and most expensive (average tuition of $32,000) – Pennsylvania private schools that serve high proportions of affluent children.
- There is no policing of “side deals” in which affluent families provide, for example, $35,000 in tax credits for a cut in tuition to half that level and everyone wins…except the taxpayer.
- About 75% of these funds go to religious schools, which do not have to be accredited and have no meaningful curriculum standards.
- Some schools that receive EITC/OSTC funding teach creationism as science (which public schools cannot do) and teach subjects such as history and economics from a theological perspective.
The good news is that this House budget proposal is just one step in the legislative process that will end with a final 2017-2018 budget. In the upcoming weeks and months we have time to write letters to the editor and make phone calls and visits to our state senators, urging them to reject increasing funding for vouchers in the 2017-2018 budget.
We need state lawmakers to fund our PUBLIC schools, not Betsy DeVos–style vouchers for private/religious schools. We also need them to support a responsible budget that raises enough revenue to fund the programs and services that support working families, clean air and water, and thriving communities throughout PA.