THE FIRING OF teacher Margie Winters by Waldron Mercy Academy in Merion on the basis of Winters' marriage to another woman comes at a time that guaranteed this to be a hot-button issue.
It's just weeks after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the legality of gay marriage, and months away from a visit from the pope, who is known for his messages of love, forgiveness and his suggestion of tolerance for gays. Layer this on top of many Catholics struggling to reconcile their faith against decades of church scandals involving child abuse by priests.
Many Waldron Mercy parents have rallied in support of Winters. Ultimately, resolving this issue will be up to the church and the school.
But there's another issue related to this incident that should concern us all: Waldron Mercy is the recipient of hundreds of thousands of dollars of state tax credits as part of a state program that allows companies to divert their corporate tax bill to support schools and scholarship funds that benefit students of private and parochial schools (as well as public schools). State Sen. Daylin Leach publicized the fact that this year alone, Waldron Mercy received nearly $200,000 in donations via the program.
The Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program provides hefty credits - up to 90 percent of a corporation's tax liability to support of private and parochial schools and scholarship programs for students to attend those schools.
Critics, including Gov. Tom Wolf, call this a "back door voucher" system; critics also maintain that the program directs public money to private schools with no oversight or regulations. Scholarships aren't limited to low-income students; currently, a family could be making over $100,000 a year and qualify.
The law says that the tax credits don't constitute public dollars, since the money never gets to the state's general fund, but is instead diverted to these programs. But taxpayers might think otherwise - since every dollar that goes to the tax credits is effectively siphoned from the revenue the state could be collecting. Last year, $150 million went to scholarships that allowed students to attend. That amount could increase to $250 million next year.
The program is administered by the state Department of Economic and Community Development, but has little oversight. Test scores, attendance, graduation rates and other performance data of students using the program are unknown. Besides the lack of accountability for the dollars is the troubling fact that the dollars go to schools who don't have to follow the law when it comes to discriminatory practices like Waldron Mercy's.
We can't help likening this situation to the fight the city began with a local council of the Boy Scouts of America in 2008 over the Scouts' ban on gay members and leaders. The city claimed that based on this policy, the Boy Scouts were not entitled to the municipal benefit of a city-owned building the council occupied. That case was ultimately settled, with the city paying the Boy Scouts for improvements to the building and the council leaving the building.
While the EITC program does provide opportunities for many students, the murky-to-absent rules surrounding this money need better scrutiny and clarification. The EITC may not only be a back door voucher program, but a free pass for discrimination that public money - even if it hasn't officially made it to the general fund before becoming a tax credit - should not support.