In Philly rally, dozens call on Wolf to fast-track scholarship process

 Students, parents and education advocates attend a rally outside Gov. Tom Wolf's Philadelphia offices to pressure the administration to lift restrictions on the Educational Improvement Tax Credit that provides scholarships to low-income students. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Students, parents and education advocates attend a rally outside Gov. Tom Wolf's Philadelphia offices to pressure the administration to lift restrictions on the Educational Improvement Tax Credit that provides scholarships to low-income students. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Many Pennsylvania schools and organizations that rely on state money have been suffering as the budget impasse has cut off funding.

Now, some scholarships for low-income students are at risk of disappearing because of a holdup in tax credit approvals.

A crowd of about a hundred parents, students and educators held up signs and chanted, “Scholarships, not politics,” outside Gov. Tom Wolf’s Philadelphia office yesterday to make that point.

They demanded the scholarship process — held up by the budget impasse — move ahead.

Businesses fund K-12 scholarships for low-income students and earn tax credits.

The Educational Improvement Tax Credit allows schools to raise general scholarship money and also funds innovative educational improvement programs for public schools through business tax credits.

The Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit provides scholarships to students residing within the boundaries of the state’s lowest-achieving schools to transfer to other higher performing public or private schools.

Both programs are administered by the Department of Economic and Community Development.

The Wolf administration says the tax credits cannot be released until a budget is finalized because state officials won’t know the maximum they can award.

If those credits are not approved by the end of the year, that funding will disappear.

Rally organizers said their purpose was to draw attention to the fact that until companies get the approval letters from the state, they can’t make the donations.

Ina Lipman, executive director of Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia, said that puts recipients in a unique position, unlike other organizations hurt by the budget stalemate.

“Once the budget passes, these dollars will be lost if we go into January,” she said. “For better or worse, those other organizations, although they have suffered and are suffering needlessly, will get their funding backfilled.”

More than 20,000 children in the Greater Philadelphia area could lose their scholarships and up to $150 million in scholarships are at risk statewide, Lipman said.

In her 15 years running the scholarship fund, she said, this is unprecedented.

“The governor and DCED have it within their power,” she said. “It’s something that is simply getting caught up in politics.”

Lipman, who said she would like to see the approval letters released now, argued that it’s not a budget issue since the funding is an allocation not an appropriation.

Rallying cry

Hazel Wilson brought her grandson, Amir, a third-grader at St. Martin de Porres, to the rally.

“I’m out here to try to get the governor to release the funds so that we can have the scholarship money to keep these kids’ education going forward,” Wilson said.

If the scholarships aren’t available, she said, the family will have to take on a second job to try keep the 9-year-old in the school.

Ashley Norwood, a sophomore at Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls, lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her mother.

“We’re alone. Everybody else is in Puerto Rico. I take a lot of scholarships because I don’t have money like that,” Ashley said.

The crowd held signs that read, “Save Our Scholarships,” “Don’t Hold Our Kids Hostage,” and “EITC is a Win for Everyone.”

Nancy Green, director of development at Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School, said their students depend on the scholarships. Every student works weekly at a paid corporate internship, which covers 60 percent of the tuition. Families pay on a sliding scale and the remaining balance is made up with scholarships.

“I’d like to see both the governor and the Legislature to kind of get it together and realize that there are tens of thousands of students that are depending on this tax credit program,” Green said. “So however it comes about, whether it’s the governor or the Legislature, we just want it to be resolved. And that’s what all these people are out here for.”

Students from St. Thomas Aquinas Mission School, Father Judge and Bishop McDevitt high schools participated, as well as supporters from Jewish schools.

Kanika Stewart’s son, Keith, attends kindergarten at St. Martin de Porres and also depends on several scholarships.

“Right now, we’re at risk of not having our child attending school because we can’t afford it without the scholarships,” she said.

Both Keith’s parents attended the school and want him to continue the legacy.

Reaching out to the governor

Stewart said she hopes the governor can see the impact the budget standoff is having.

“It’s not fair to us, the small people down here who are really affected by it. I don’t know if he really understands the whole holding back and what it’s going to mean to us,” she said. “What he needs to do is come to a happy medium with [the Legislature]. That’s what he needs to do because we need this budget passed.”

Business applications have been submitted for EITC and OSTC, but the award letters have not been sent out yet.

The crowd chanted “Make schools better, pass the letter,” and “Be like the pope and give us some hope.”

DCED officials say the department is prepared to issue award letters but only once the 2015-16 allocation is approved.

Lipman’a group is sending an open letter to the governor — signed by hundreds of educational organizations — Tuesday.

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