House Speaker Mike Turzai promoted Pennsylvania’s school-choice programs at a conservative think tank in Washington on Tuesday, describing the state’s tax credits for private-school scholarships as a model that should be replicated nationally.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ proposal to create a $5 billion federal tax credit for donations for students to attend private schools or pursue other state-approved education options mirrors programs in Pennsylvania and other states, Turzai (R., Allegheny) said during a panel discussion on DeVos’ proposal at the American Enterprise Institute.
Critics see Pennsylvania’s programs — which provide tax credits to businesses in exchange for donating to scholarships for students to attend private schools — as drains on the state budget that aren’t necessarily targeting poor students.
But Turzai praised them as a success that bolstered DeVos’ proposal, which the secretary addressed at the think tank Tuesday.
“The laboratories of democracy have already shown it works,” Turzai said, adding that the federal tax credits pitched by DeVos would benefit Pennsylvania’s existing programs because “you could partner them up” to increase the size of the tuition awards and the number of families receiving them.
“I actually believe you would continue to create waiting lists” for scholarships, Turzai said. “You never quite catch up, right? Because people want that choice.”
The Republican speaker has continued to press school-choice proposals that are fiercely opposed by public-school advocates. Earlier this year, Turzai pushed to nearly double Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, promoting a bill that would have grown it by $100 million, enabled it to increase automatically in the future, and upped income limits for participating families to $126,216 a year for a family of four.
Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed the legislation, saying it had diverged from the program’s mission of lifting people out of poverty and didn’t provide accountability for state tax dollars, at a time when many public schools are struggling with funding. He and lawmakers later agreed to a budget that increased the program by $25 million.
On Tuesday, Turzai said Pennsylvania’s education tax credits amounted to a small percentage of overall education spending, and that “if we’re going to talk about accountability,” his concern is with what the state spends on public education.
He touted a bill he introduced last month, creating what he called a “pilot program” in Harrisburg that would give city students $8,200 scholarships to attend private schools. Under Turzai’s proposal, the Harrisburg School District and state would each pay half the costs.
“You need to get a foot in the door, and you need to save lives, and you need to do it any way you can,” Turzai said on Tuesday.
Wolf’s spokesperson has said the governor opposes Turzai’s new proposal.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the scope of DeVos’ proposal.