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State 'opportunity scholarships' for private schools not likely to kick in this year

By the Notebook on Aug 21, 2012 12:04 PM

By Bill Hangley, Jr.

A new state scholarship program can benefit Philadelphia students who live near struggling schools, but it isn’t likely to have a big impact in the coming school year.

Program officials and local scholarship organizations say that they hope that by this time next year, the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) will be running as smoothly as a similar, more broad-based program, the Educational Investment Tax Credit (EITC) program.

“We’re sort of stuck in the weeds right now, but hopefully in a year, things will smooth out,” said Ida Lipman of the Children's Scholarship Fund Philadelphia.

“The earliest any organization will be able to provide [OSTC] support is probably January …. Forget about this year. But parents can start to plan, and that’s always a good thing.”

The OSTC program, signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett in July, is designed to offer scholarships for private school tuition to students who live near the state’s lowest-performing public schools. Blasted by some as a back-door voucher program, it covers both students who now attend those low-performing schools and students who have already opted to attend private schools.

While EITC is available to anyone who meets the income criteria, OSTC is targeted specifically to students who live in the attendance area of low-performing schools. Because so many Philadelphia schools are on the OSTC list, including every single District-run neighborhood high school, this new program potentially opens up a significant new source of scholarships for city students.

On Tuesday, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced that it was forming a foundation to operate all of its 17 high schools, including eight in the city, and its four special education schools. At the announcement, Archbishop Charles Chaput said that the move is designed to take advantage of the OSTC program.

Between the designation of so many city neighborhood public schools as “failing” and the relatively generous income standards – starting at a maximum of $60,000 for a family of four, with $12,000 added for each dependent in the household – the great majority of city students making high school choices will be eligible.

The only exceptions are people who live in the attendance areas of three neighborhood high schools that have been converted to Renaissance charter schools. No other charter schools, by definition, are on the low-performing list because they normally don’t have attendance areas.

But Olney, Audenried, and Gratz High Schools, under the Renaissance program, function as neighborhood schools with their own catchment areas.

Obtaining a scholarship is a several-step process. Parents and students must apply to an approved scholarship organization, which must still raise the money from businesses that obtain tax breaks in return for the contributions. Then the participating schools must accept the students.

And the statewide cap on the program is $50 million, meaning that there are not unlimited funds to accommodate everyone who applies. That sum could potentially fund about 6,000 scholarships statewide.

How many of the scholarships will go to new students seeking to leave their low-performing public schools and how many to students already in schools depends on decisions by the scholarship organizations and the schools.

Right now the maximum scholarship amount of $8,500 exceeds the tuition at most archdiocesan high schools, which is $6,000. The top scholarship amount for special education students is $15,000.

Process just starting

Although state officials have released lists of eligible private schools (known as “receiving schools”) and approved scholarship organizations, the process of approving businesses that will ultimately provide the cash has only just begun – meaning that at this point, scholarship organizations have no funds to share. 

State officials began taking applications from businesses wishing to contribute on Aug. 8, and officials can’t say exactly when the first approvals will be complete.

“They’re going to try to do this as quickly as possible,” said Steve Kratz of the Department of Economic and Community Development, which administers the program. “This is very important to the governor.”

Nothing in the OSTC law prevents students already attending private schools from being awarded an OSTC scholarship. The only requirement is that a student live within the attendance area of one of the 414 Pennsylvania schools – including 158 in Philadelphia – that have been deemed “low-performing .” And students’ families must meet the income requirements.

To access OSTC scholarships, families need to apply directly to an approved scholarship fund. OSTC scholarships can, in theory, be used at any approved receiving school. Kratz said that 698 schools statewide have been approved as receiving schools so far. The list includes everything from elite private schools charging more than $20,000 per year, to small schools charging less than $3,000. 

State officials have also released a list of 39 approved OSTC scholarship organizations, including a half-dozen in the greater Philadelphia area.

That list, which state officials say can be updated at any time, now includes two large organizations that provide scholarships to multiple schools: Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools (or BLOCS, the main scholarship provider for area Catholic schools), and the Children's Scholarship Fund Philadelphia (the region’s largest scholarship provider, offering a total of $4.5 million in scholarships, on a lottery basis, that are good at any accredited regional school).

The list also includes three scholarship organizations affiliated with specific schools: the Gesu School in North Philadelphia, La Salle Academy in Kensington, and the 58-student Jubilee School in West Philadelphia. (A sixth organization, West Philadelphia’s Sky Community Partners, did not immediately respond to requests for information.)

These organizations have been fielding requests since the state released their names, taking some by surprise.

“Within a day of [the list] being posted, we started getting calls from Allentown, from Harrisburg – we’re being flooded,” said Jubilee’s Karen Falcon. “I had no idea we were going to be one of just a few organizations.”  

At BLOCS, a phone message welcomes OSTC calls but notes that BLOCS can’t give out scholarships until it raises funds from businesses. A similar message at the Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF) asks parents to check back in November.

CSF’s Lipman said she’s optimistic about fundraising for OSTC.

“I’m hoping that companies are out from under the bad economy,” she said. "Give us a year, and I’m hoping that both [EITC and OSTC] will be fully funded.”

But Lipman also said that given the competition from other scholarship organizations statewide, area parents shouldn’t expect a bonanza of new dollars.

“Fifty million statewide is not going to provide significant impact in the Philadelphia market,” she said. “It’s not going to impact as many children as we would like.”


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Comments (23)

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on August 21, 2012 4:37 pm

If the "grant" is for families making $60,000 plus $12,000 per dependent, does that mean one parent plus 3 kids equals an income of $96,000. Almost all Philadelphia teachers, cops, firefighters, etc. will qualify. How is this a way to provide more access for lower income families to parochial schools? I assume most of the students currently enrolled will qualify. The most difficult to educate students will still be in neighborhood, public schools. How will this help them? It is another Corbett cut to public education which damages the majority of children in Pennsylvania.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on August 21, 2012 5:35 pm

Exactly. The Opportunity Scholarship was not created to help the poor, minority children in Philadelphia. That's just a by-product. It was created to act like a voucher program, without the stigma of the voucher label, to shore up the floundering Catholic School system. Was there ever any doubt, when it was passed, under the cloak of darkness, in the last hours of the fiscal year?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2012 2:25 pm

What it says is that the grant is for families of four making up to $60,000/year--so that would be a mother, father and two children; or a mother and three children; a father and three children...etc. For each additional member OVER four you add 12,000 to the 60,000.

So, yes, this will benefit low income because a family of four making anywhere from $0.00/yr up to $60,000/year is eligible. Like any other program, families of three or less would have a different maximum but will qualify as long as they are below that maximum income.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2012 6:05 pm

The document at the SDP web site does NOT state family of four - it states "Through June 30, 2013: $60,000, plus $12,000 for each dependent member of the household. After June 30, 2013: $75,000... " Adjustments for students with disabilities.

No where does it state "family of 4" plus additional dependents. Middle income is between $39,000 - $118,000. (That data was just on public radio.) That means, this is voucher is available for students in solidly middle incomes households. It is targeted at Philadelphia and other urban areas throughout PA to prop up Archdiocese / parochial and other religious schools. What happened to separation of church and state? (The PA Constitution draws a sharper line between religion and state than the US Constitution.)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2012 8:14 pm

The article above DOES state that: "starting at a maximum of $60,000 for a family of four, with $12,000 added for each dependent in the household – the great majority of city students making high school choices will be eligible." This information came from somewhere and I would hope that the Notebook wouldn't put out erroneous information to the public.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2012 5:40 am

The School District document (see previous post) does NOT state "family of 4." In addition, school districts are responsible for transportation. This is an additional "unfunded" cost school districts must assume without state reimbursement. Private school students already get public funding (Title 1, transportation, textbook funding, etc.) Once again, the public school budgets will be strangled.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 19, 2013 1:09 pm
Obviously spoken by someone who has never had to pay for anything himself but expects everything to be given to you or you are entitled to. This has nothing to do with separation of Church and state. This is both a need based and performance based initiative. It most certainly will assist low income families and allow them the opportunity to pull their children from failing ( and dangerous) public schools and put them into succeeding ( and safer) private schools ( Catholic or other private schools). Unfortunately, it does not address the clear injustice against families making more than $60k per year that already make the sacrifice and send their children to private / Catholic schools, yet who still pay the same or more taxes that pay to educate all of the children in the public schools ( failing or succeeding schools), Those familes get no financial benefit or assistance in helping pay for the education of their children enrolled in the private/ catholic schools. But I guess you think it's OK for those parents to pay for your children's education while you pay nothing the help educate their children. Public schools in reality are nothing more than another form of Welfare. It's about time people like you carry your weight! Many people who send their children to public school do so because they would rather live in a $700k home, wear designer clothes and drive around in their BMWs and Volvo's rather than make their children's education and well being a priority. Public schools are Welfare for the well to do. While this is clearly not a voucher program, a voucher program is sorely needed to assist families who do want to send their children to a catholic or other private school and struggle to do so given the current economic landscape. As far as this program "propping up" the parochial schools, this program is aimed at helping low or lower income families be able to afford to send their children to " Better schools" so they can get a better education, which is at the end of the day what everyone ( or at least most of us) want for our children. Moreover, these catholic schools you say need propping up , continuously out perform, significantly, their public school conterparts. They have significantly higher test scores, graduation rates, significantly more students from the catholic / private schools go on to college AND graduate from college than the public schools, receive significantly more money in college scholarships etc. So yes by all means let's discourage people from sending their children to a catholic or other private school! Keep in mind that the catholic schools do all of this at approxiamtely 1/3 -1/2 of what we pay per student in tax dollars for every student in a public school. AH yes , bureaucracy at its best. More money, lower results. Finally, if all of the catholic and othe rprivate schools were to clsoe their doors tomorrow and all of those thousands of students ahd to attend a public school, it would cripple the public school system and would would significantly increase everyone's taxes. The catholic and private schools, believe it or not, actually save tax payers, yes the very people who don't pay a dime to help educate the children in all of those catholic and private schools, alot of money in additional taxes that would have to be paid, if the catholic and other private schools did not exist. So it is in everyone's best financial interest that the catholic and other private schools stay around. This is not about separation of church and state at all. It's about, or should be about, what's right, fair and in the interest of every child we are trying to educate. Get it right !
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 19, 2013 3:01 pm
I don't even know WHERE to begin, other than to say that you've lost what little mind you must have once had.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 19, 2013 3:00 pm
Well, you did get off the beaten path of the OSTC funding, but I must say, overall I agree with your points. I sent my kids to public school but I have some friends and neighbors who opted to sent their kids to catholic or other private schools, and it does seem unfair that they all paid the same taxes plus paid tuition on top with no assistance or help from the state or local school district and weren't even allowed to write off the tuition when filing their taxes. Not everyone who sends their kids to a catholic or private school is rich and for many that do, it is a financial sacrifice.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on March 19, 2013 9:52 pm
Perhaps this will help you sort this out: Would you support homeschoolers being publicly funded too? Students taught this way consistently test in the 80 and above percentile on standardized tests. The objections you would likely find to this, should shed light on why private and Catholic schools should not be publicly funded. A public school education is meant to offer a basic level of instruction to all, and that is what the taxpayer is paying for. If you choose not to use this service, for whatever reason, you are not relieved of the responsibility of supporting it, which is for the public good/ensuring the continuing functioning of our society. Welfare is a safety net, which is not exactly the same as a public education, which is a vital service. The separation of Church and State is still very important, especially as education can become a political influence. If Catholic schools want to qualify for public funding, then they need to clear out all religious references in their school day. These can be taught elsewhere, whether it is Church or a religion class. In addition they would need to subject their program to the same documentation and accountability as the public schools. Would they want to do this?
Submitted by Timothy Boyle on August 21, 2012 5:04 pm

Why aren't children of low-performing schools such as Community Academy of Philadelphia Charter, Eastern University Charter, KIPP West Philadelphia Charter, Philadelphia Montessori Charter, Tacony Academy Charter, Truebright Science Academy Charter, Wakisha Charter, or West Philadelphia Achievement Charter given the same chance to "escape" failing schools that other children are? Because a choice was made to go to a "failing" school you can't get any opportunity scholarship money? What if a parent decided that even though the school their child doesn't make AYP, they know there kid is getting a good education? 

*schools listed based on SPI of 8 or higher in 2011

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2012 8:59 am

My understanding is that these students would be eligible as well, as long as they also live in the catchment of a "low performing" district school. I could be wrong though... There's a lot about this that doesn't make sense.

Submitted by Dale Mezzacappa on August 22, 2012 11:22 am

Any student who lives in the catchment area of a low-performing district school is eligible, even if they now attend a charter school. If a Renaissance charter school has a catchment area, as at least three high schools do, then the student is not eligible, as I understand it. Otherwise, every Philadelphia neighborhood high school is on the list, making all students in the city outside the feeder areas of those three schools whose families meet the income requirements eligible at the high school level.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2012 12:45 pm

Do you know why Renaissance high schools' catchment areas are excluded? Is the authors of the law assume these schools are not "low performing?" It is to ensure the enrollment of students in Renaissance Charters? Is it to perpetuate the growth of Renaissance Charters? What is the "official" rationale?

Submitted by Dale Mezzacappa on August 22, 2012 12:00 pm

The rationale, according to PDE, is that  "charter schools are not impacted by the OSTC program."

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 22, 2012 12:48 pm

Thanks for the info. This is more evidence that the PA legislature / Corbett Administration are targeting public schools. There are plenty of "low performing" charters in Philly that are not accountable. Ramos has been quoted as stating he wants to shut down SDP neighborhood high schools. This will give him and the rest of the SRC more fuel to shut them down. Meanwhile, charters will not accept all students and SDP magnet certainly won't take all students. I know the parochial schools wont' open their doors. More inequity and mess.

Submitted by taxpaying parent (not verified) on August 22, 2012 10:07 pm

Well, that's not much of a rationale is it?

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on August 22, 2012 8:50 pm

Does Belmont Charter perform well enough to have a catchment but not make the "low-performing" schools list?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2012 5:00 am

In 2011, Belmont Charter's scores dropped in all categories - they did not make AYP. See Their scores look lower than many other elementary schools. Their IEP scores are particularly low.

Submitted by anon (not verified) on August 21, 2012 8:26 pm

your tax dollars at work.

could they design a move convoluted, confusing plan if they set out to? of course if it was simple to understand, the $ might just wind up in the wrong hands. justice. just - us.

what a mess.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 14, 2013 5:06 pm
All poor children are not minority children, this opportunity is for all children who meet the requirements and live in a low performing school district. Why is equality always the most important issue... until a program for some kind of funding is available. Poor majority children deserve this as much as poor minority children.
Submitted by wiki (not verified) on April 18, 2013 10:21 pm
Many students dream of one day attending college, but do not know how they will pay for it. Many times, parents work hard and earn a wage that is good enough to take care of the necessities, but not enough to cover college tuition. If parents are considered middle class, then certain grants or loans may not be readily available. In this situation, obtaining scholarships is the best way to pay for college. With some time to plan ahead, it is possible to find a way to go to college without going deep into debt or risking family financial stability. Thanks. Regards, read more
Submitted by billwu (not verified) on May 6, 2013 11:42 pm
Please let me know if youre looking for a author for your weblog. You have some really great articles and I feel I would be a good asset. If you ever want to take some of the load off, Id love to write some material for your blog in exchange for a link back to mine. Please send me an email if interested. Kudos! iobd2

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