The expansion of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program approved this summer may not be fully ready for this school year as advertised, with several scholarship organizations saying it could take weeks, perhaps months, to raise funds.
That fundraising process began last week, after a handful of organizations were approved to solicit businesses for donations. In return, the businesses receive a state tax credit through the new $50 million program.
But classes are set to begin shortly, raising concerns that students in the state's lowest-performing schools may not be able to transfer as quickly as they expected.
"Parents need to realize that there is going to be a learning curve period where we are going to have to figure out how much money we will have. It's complicated and it will be complicated for a while," said Ronald Bowes, assistant superintendent for policy and development for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, who has received numerous inquiries about the scholarship funds.
Mr. Bowes is heading the group administering the new state Opportunity Scholarship program for the diocesan schools. That $50 million program, which is a new tier of the EITC program, was approved by the Legislature in June and signed into law last month by Gov. Tom Corbett.
The earlier program is a state incentive created in 2001, which gives tax credits to businesses that contribute to organizations providing private-school scholarships.
This year's expansion boosted the general program by $25 million to $100 million, with another $50 million earmarked for the new Opportunity Scholarship portion. Scholarships in the new program, which also will funded through business donations, are designated for students whose local school is among the state's lowest-performing 15 percent and whose families meet a certain income threshold.
State officials have said the scholarships can be used beginning for the 2012-13 school year. A list of 414 failing public schools in 74 districts was released in July, with 53 Allegheny County schools on the list. Half of the county schools are in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, including seven that were closed permanently in June.
Other Allegheny County districts with schools on the list are Clairton, Duquesne, East Allegheny, McKeesport Area, Penn Hills, Steel Valley, Sto-Rox, Wilkinsburg and Woodland Hills. Those districts by Wednesday must send letters to parents of students notifying them that they may be eligible for the scholarships.
Families of students must earn less than $60,000 annually, with another $12,000 allowed per dependent. Maximum scholarship awards for most students will be $8,500 for regular education students and $15,000 for special education.
Scholarships will be need-based with the largest awards going to the neediest students.
There are about two dozen scholarship organizations representing private schools in Pennsylvania approved by the state Department of Community and Economic Development to raise money. The list is expected to grow significantly as more organizations apply. About 175 scholarship organizations collect funds for the original scholarship program.
Mr. Bowes and others operating scholarship organizations, as well as individual Catholic schools, are contacting businesses to see if they want to take advantage of the tax credit program.
Even though there was no money committed to the fund last week, the diocese was being deluged with requests for scholarship applications.
David Hegedus, association director of the ACSI Children's Tuition Fund in Lancaster, a scholarship organization for 70 Christian schools across Pennsylvania, said his group also is in the process of trying to raise money while it is being bombarded with requests for applications. A similar scenario exists at the scholarship organization for The New School of Lancaster, a Montessori school.
"There's a lot of misconceptions," Mr. Hegedus said. "They think you're sitting there on all these dollars waiting to disperse them."
The Pittsburgh Diocese has raised about $3 million a year in the original program and gave grants to families that ranged from $100 to "thousands of dollars" depending upon the family's income, Mr. Bowes said.
At MMI Preparatory School in Freeland, Luzerne County, officials expect to have scholarship money ready for the start of the school year. "We do have donors in place and have 10 vacancies at our school and we are definitely moving ahead," said Kim McNulty, MMI director of advancement who is heading the school's scholarship organization.
Steven Kratz, spokesman for the DCED, said parents interested in the scholarships should contact the scholarship organization or school they are interested in for an application.
"Because this is the first year of the program, we won't know for sure when all of the money will be raised," he said.
In the meantime, school districts are preparing the information they are required to send to parents by Wednesday.
In Sto-Rox, where all of the district's schools are on the lowest-performing list, Superintendent Michael Panza shared with the school board the materials the district will send to parents. Mr. Panza echoed the sentiments of other superintendents whose schools are on the lowest-performing list.
"How will we know if this boosts student achievement when the private schools accepting the students don't have to take the PSSAs?" Mr. Panza asked, referring to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests.
Test scores were used as the benchmark to determine the list of lowest-achieving schools.education - businessnews