Pennsylvania school choice program criticized as ‘discriminatory’ as lawmakers return to session

Democrats are pushing for billions of additional dollars for public schools, but Republicans are pressing to expand taxpayer funding for private schools.

The state Capitol building

File photo: Pa.’s state Capitol in Harrisburg. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Public school advocates in Pennsylvania are criticizing publicly funded programs that help underwrite tuition at private and religious schools, saying many of the eligible schools discriminate by cherry-picking the students they want to teach.

Pennsylvania’s Capitol is already gripped by a broader and mostly partisan debate over how to respond to a judge’s ruling that the state’s system of funding public school, which depends largely on property taxes, unconstitutionally discriminates against students in the state’s poorer districts.

With Democrats controlling the House and Republicans controlling the Senate, lawmakers returned to session on Monday with school funding still an unresolved area of contention. Democrats are pushing for billions of additional dollars for public schools, but Republicans are pressing to expand taxpayer funding for private schools — including through programs that provides tax credits to businesses to defray the cost of private-school tuition.

As negotiations continue, the nonprofit Education Voters of Pennsylvania is calling for greater scrutiny. The nonprofit said it studied about 160 of the 800 schools eligible to receive donations offset by tax credits, called the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit, and found that all have policies that discriminate on the basis of religion, LGBTQ+ status, disability or another reason.

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It is the opposite of “school choice,” said the nonprofit’s director, Susan Spicka. “It is schools that are choosing students.”

The money that goes to this program, as well as the Educational Improvement Tax Credits program, undermines Pennsylvania’s capacity to adequately fund public schools, she said.

The report found that the private schools — many of which are also religious — have policies that would expel pregnant students or have them go through Christian counseling; reject students who are part of or support the LGBTQ+ community; and openly state that they cannot serve students with disabilities.

Republican leaders who support the legislation said the report manifests “baseless accusations,” arguing that audits are required annually and the programs support poorer students.

“Empowering parents to decide the best options for their child’s education remains a top priority for Senate Republicans,” Senate Majority Leader Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, said in a statement. “Every child should have access to educational opportunities.”

Over the past 20 years, the state has earmarked about $2 billion to the tax credit programs, with a bulk of it coming in the last five years.

The programs enable businesses to donate up to $750,000 a year to a qualifying school or educational organization and shield up to 90% of that amount in revenue from state taxes.

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Of the schools analyzed, 100% of them included a policy that could be used to discriminate against students, the report found. Those schools either had outright discriminatory statements on their website, or through application requirements, like requiring letters from clergy or details about where families attended church, or inquiring about students’ disabilities and requiring testing before admission, according to the report.

The report found that of the schools studied, one in five had policies that discriminate against LGBTQ+ people, and 13% had “punitive” measures against pregnancy and abortion.

Parents often have little recourse when they come up against such policies, said Sharon Ward, policy advisor for Education Law Center.

The Capitol’s education funding tug-of-war is holding up the state’s spending plan. The GOP-controlled Senate has pushed for more funds to go to tax credit scholarships and to create a new school voucher program, which would allow students in low-performing districts to use public dollars to attend private schools. The voucher program has the backing of Gov. Josh Shapiro — making him unique among Democratic governors — but opposition from the Democrats who control the House.

House Democrats have criticized such efforts under the shadow of the court’s February decision, but their attempts to pour more money into public education have met a chilly reception in the Senate, deadlocking the chambers.

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