Businesses get OK to offer scholarships

Money would help students transfer from low-performing schools

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The state Department of Community and Economic Development has approved a list of 10 organizations that can start accepting applications from parents of students residing in the lowest-performing 15 percent of school districts for scholarships to attend other public or private schools.

The scholarships, up to $8,500 for annual tuition for regular education students and up to $15,000 for special education students, will come through the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, which was expanded by $50 million in July. The program offers credits to businesses that donate to scholarship programs for needy students.

Late last week, the DCED named the first three scholarship organizations and Monday that list expanded to 10. The only organization in southwestern Pennsylvania so far is the Scholastic Opportunity Scholarship Fund operated by the Diocese of Pittsburgh. A full list of the scholarship organizations can be found on the DCED website, newPA.com/ostc. The list may expand if more organizations apply, said Steven Kratz, a DCED spokesman.

"The process is that the actual scholarships are awarded through these approved opportunity scholarship organizations," Mr. Kratz said. "Parents can begin inquiring with these organizations. Parents interested in the scholarships should not delay in getting the process started."

Each scholarship organization will solicit donations from business in its region. Those donations, which serve as tax credits for the businesses, will be used to fund the scholarships.

Last week the state Education Department asked schools not on the lowest-performing 15 percent list to apply to the department to be on the list of schools that will accept students with opportunity scholarships. Tim Eller, Education Department spokesman, said a list of eligible schools will be posted at some point after the Aug. 15 deadline for schools to sign up.

Schools approved to receive students with an opportunity scholarship cannot charge more than their set tuition. If a participating school receives more enrollment requests than capacity allows, the school must use a lottery to determine enrollment.

Mr. Kratz said despite the fact that no accepting schools have been identified parents can start the application process if their child resides within the attendance areas of the 414 public schools in 74 districts across the state that represent the lowest-achieving 15 percent of public schools.

Families of students who attend schools on the list must earn less than $60,000 annually, with another $12,000 allowed per dependent.

The list is based on the 2010-11 math and reading scores and includes 53 Allegheny County elementary and secondary schools. Half of those schools are within the Pittsburgh Public Schools district, including seven that closed in June and will not reopen.

Other Allegheny County districts with schools on the list include the Clairton City, Duquesne, East Allegheny, McKeesport Area, Penn Hills, Steel Valley, Sto-Rox, Wilkinsburg and Woodland Hills school districts. Those districts must notify parents which schools are on the list by Aug. 15. A list of the lowest-performing schools is available on the education department website, www.education.state.pa.us, and clicking on the "opportunity scholarship tax credit program" icon.

Mr. Kratz said the $50 million fund for the opportunity scholarships is expected to provide tuition for more than 40,000 students in grades K-12 across the state.

He said because of the tight time frame in getting the program up and running, some students may have to start school in their regular public districts and transfer when the scholarship money becomes available.

education - state

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1590.


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