Pittsburgh tax credit plan to fund scholarships starts slow
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The first day of school has come and gone, but Pittsburgh groups raising money for a tax-credit scholarship program enacted this summer say they are just beginning to solicit donations.
The Opportunity Scholarship tax credit, which takes the concept behind an existing tuition-subsidy program and targets it at students who live near low-performing schools, became law along with the state budget, and commonwealth agencies began authorizing businesses and schools to take part. The $50 million in tax credits allowed under the law could provide tuition at private or public schools for more than 40,000 students in grades K-12, a spokesman for the Department of Community and Economic Development said last month.
But two weeks into September, several Pittsburgh scholarship organizations said they are only now soliciting donations for the new program, which will provide scholarships to students living in the sending areas of the lowest-performing 15 percent of schools.
The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, a major fundraiser for the original Educational Improvement Tax Credit, concluded a round of solicitations in July that it expects will result in $3 million for that program. The diocese will begin a new drive to raise money for the Opportunity Scholarship program, but Ronald Bowes, assistant superintendent for policy and development, said it is unlikely significant money can be distributed until next school year, despite a list of 250 parents who have expressed interest in applying for the new scholarships.
"The program was rolled out at a very difficult time," he said, pointing to the confluence of the original fundraising campaign and preparations for the new school year. But he praised the idea of the new program and said he has no doubt it will be running in fall 2013.
The money may not yet have come through, but inquiries have from parents seeking scholarships. Bob Phelps, executive director of the Pittsburgh Urban Christian School, a non-denominational K-8 school in Wilkinsburg, sees the program as a chance to enroll more students but only after businesses opt to divert their tax dollars.
"I've been flooded with calls and emails saying, 'Can you help me?' " he said. "We're having to tell folks we don't have any resources. That's where the challenge is for us."
Summer Dean, director of development for the Crossroads Foundation, which provides scholarships for low-income students from the Pittsburgh area to attend Catholic high schools, said the year-long planning horizon of many corporate donors could make it hard for scholarship organizations to secure gifts this year. While the foundation has not yet received contributions for the Opportunity Scholarship, Ms. Dean said she believes some are in the works.
"My hope is that we'll still be able to get some," she said. "I think it's going to be difficult, though, because of the timing."
Since Crossroads would use the program to lower the tuition of students it already is assisting, mid-year donations could be used without requiring students to switch schools.
At the Glen Montessori School in the North Hills, which was approved as a scholarship organization late last week, Lois Payne, head of school, said the school's practice of combining several grades in a single classroom would smooth the way for students enrolling mid-year. Ms. Payne said she has sensed frustration among some of the parents who have inquired about scholarships.
"I think many of them realize there was late notice about this opportunity starting and so many places have not jumped on this opportunity yet," she said. "It's a question of how fast we can raise the money so they can send their children here."
When money becomes available, students who meet income restrictions can apply for a need-based award with a maximum of $8,500, or $15,000 if they are enrolled in special education.
Elsewhere in the state, a spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Allentown said the diocese is in the process of fundraising and will not dispense scholarships until next year. The Scranton Diocese has not received confirmation from any businesses approved for the tax credit, but a spokesman said the diocese is willing to accept students during the current year.
Information about the amount of tax credits approved was not available Friday from the Department of Community and Economic Development.
The state has released a list of low-performing schools where families can apply for the scholarships. The list includes schools in Pittsburgh, Clairton, Duquesne, East Allegheny, McKeesport Area, Penn Hills, Steel Valley, Sto-Rox, Wilkinsburg and Woodland Hills.
On Thursday, Gov. Tom Corbett spoke at a rally promoting the new scholarships at a Catholic high school outside Philadelphia. Afterward, the governor said the program will help students in years to come, if not this fall.
"It will be there in future years," Mr. Corbett said, adding later: "If we can get money this year, that's great."
The program was first promoted by House Republicans, said Steve Miskin, a spokesman for the caucus who echoed that sentiment.
"Whether it's right now or for early next year, it's going to provide opportunities for a number of Pennsylvania students who need to have a choice because their districts, their schools are failing them," he said.
First Published September 17, 2012 12:00 am