Private schools embrace opportunity scholarships

No public districts in county sign up

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Officials from Catholic and other private and religious schools have been quick to sign up their institutions to accept students who qualify for the opportunity scholarships expected to be available through the expansion of the state's Educational Improvement Tax Credit program.

But public school officials don't appear to be rushing to get on the list.

The scholarships are available to students who live within the boundaries of the lowest-performing 15 percent of schools in the state and whose families earn below certain income levels. In July, the state issued a list of 414 public schools in 74 districts.

Higher achieving public school districts and private schools had until Wednesday to apply to be on the state list of schools eligible to receive scholarship students. Last month, state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis said the program needed the participation of both public and private schools in order to succeed.

Of the approximately 350 schools on the list as of Friday, only two -- Clarion Area Elementary and Clarion Jr./Sr. High School -- are public. The rest are a mixture of religious, Montessori and other private schools.

In Allegheny County, there are 38 private schools on the list, with the majority of them Catholic schools.

Tim Eller, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said there are 500 more schools to be added to the list, but it doesn't appear any of them are public schools from Allegheny County.

West Mifflin Area superintendent Daniel Castagna announced at Thursday's board meeting that his district was not participating because "it's a blatant attempt to privatize public education."

Mr. Castagna said he participated in a conference call last week with 23 other Allegheny County school superintendents and that the majority agreed that the opportunity scholarships would not help public school districts and that it was unfair for the higher-performing districts to take students away from the lower-performing public districts.

Last month, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association issued a statement about the opportunity scholarship program which it referred to as the "voucher-lite program" saying that it "shifts limited state funds away from public school districts by siphoning valuable dollars from the general fund, via tax credits, that could be used for public schools."

Also, among other objections listed by the PSBA is the fact that the private schools who receive scholarship students are not required to provide any standardized testing to evaluate student performance.

The scholarships would be funded from a pool of up to $50 million that would be raised by offering tax credits to businesses that donate to the scholarship organizations created to collect money for the schools on the approved list. Currently those scholarship organizations are contacting businesses to try to get the donations.

Officials from some scholarship organizations, including the one operated by the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese, have warned that it may take weeks or months to raise enough money to offer scholarships.

Families of students must earn less than $60,000 annually, with another $12,000 allowed per dependent. Maximum scholarship awards for regular education students would be $8,500 for typical students and $15,000 for special education students. Scholarships will be need-based with the largest awards going to the neediest students.

In Allegheny County, 53 Allegheny County schools were on the lowest performing list, though half 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, Penn Hills, Steel Valley, Sto-Rox, Wilkinsburg and Woodland Hills.

It appears not all higher-achieving public districts are opposed to the scholarship program even though they are not participating this year.

Quaker Valley superintendent Joseph Clapper said his district is not accepting opportunity scholarship students for the 2012-13 school year because of the short time frame for districts to consider participation this year.

"The problem is this thing was imposed upon us at a late date and with not enough details," Mr. Clapper said. In addition, he said, participation requires a vote by the school board and the Quaker Valley board doesn't meet in the summer months.

But, he said, he's not ruling out participating in future years.

state

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


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