Every student in Pennsylvania deserves the best education possible; one that fits the individual needs of each student. When it comes to serving these individual needs, we know that one size does not fit all. So, I have introduced House Bill 800 to bring the best of what other states have done to Pennsylvania and to continue to lead the way on school choice and innovation.
Each year, the largest expenditure in Pennsylvania’s state budget is dedicated to primary and secondary education — more than $11 billion to support every public school in the Commonwealth. When added to local spending, we devote more than $30 billion annually to funding our public-school districts. In return for this great investment, Pennsylvania boasts many of the best public schools in the nation, providing immense benefit to our students and our communities. But, for a variety of reasons unique to each individual, these great public schools are not always the right fit for every child or every family.
Recognizing this, in 2001 we were among the first states to establish a school choice tax-credit scholarship program, allowing businesses to donate directly to support pre-K-12 education in place of a portion of their tax bill. Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC), and the later Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC), have provided scholarships empowering hundreds of thousands of low- and middle-income students to attend the school that is right for them.
Through donations to innovative organizations working to improve our public schools, they have also delivered tens of millions of dollars to extracurriculars and before- or after-school programs. Donations to prekindergarten education have afforded thousands of families the opportunity to begin their child’s education with the best possible foundation. The benefits of these credits are life-changing for students, enabling them to attend nonpublic schools or to participate in educational enhancement activities that their parents could never afford alone.
Not only have the EITC and OSTC programs improved the quality of students’ education — they have also saved at least $1 billion for Pennsylvania and our public-school districts since the EITC began in 2001. The average scholarship award is just under $1,900, while the average per-pupil spending by public schools in Pennsylvania is almost 10 times greater, at $16,600 annually. These tax credits are effective investments that benefit students, parents, taxpayers, and schools — both public and private.
Under my leadership, the Pennsylvania House Republican majority has greatly expanded the EITC program over the past 10 years, increasing the allocation by nearly $100 million and allowing access to additional middle-class families by raising the household income limit.
But while our program remains a national leader in many respects, we have much work left to do to provide the innovation and school choice that our children deserve. And we’re at risk of falling behind other, more proactive states.
In the 2016-17 school year, more than 50,000 students were able to receive a scholarship to attend the school of their choice, but another 52,000 applications were denied due to limits on the programs’ size and household income requirements. There is an equally unmet need among donors, with too few tax credits available for the many wanting to give. As of January 2019, businesses had applied for $180 million in tax credits beyond the current caps. With a limit of $210 million, the programs’ annual budget is far too low, accounting for less than 2 percent of the state government’s appropriation for education.
House Bill 800 increases the annual EITC scholarship allocation by $100 million, allowing many more students to benefit from the program. Additionally, it creates an automatic escalator that grows the EITC scholarship allocation to meet demand, increasing the annual cap by 10 percent whenever 90 percent of the current limit is reached. It also increases the limit on household income, allowing more middle-class families to benefit, and guarantees that once a student has received a scholarship, they remain eligible for these programs through high school graduation regardless of changes in family income. And to ensure that these donations provide the greatest benefit possible to our students, it requires that at least 90 percent of donations are spent directly on students, rather than administrative overhead.
To advocate for school choice is to recognize that students and parents know best the educational environment that most suits each child’s needs, talents, interests, and aspirations. For most Pennsylvanians, that environment is their great local public school. For many others, it might be a public charter, private school, vocational school, or homeschooling. This bill will secure Pennsylvania’s status as a national leader in education and school choice, ensuring that every student, regardless of his or her family’s income, is empowered to choose the learning environment that is best for them.