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Hundreds of students and their parents filed into the state Capitol Rotunda last month for a rally to cheer for Senate Bill 1 – the Opportunity Scholarship Act. SB 1 proposes a significant increase to the Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program. If passed, the EITC will increase to $100 million making more scholarships available to qualified students. It also proposes vouchers for the poorest students in chronically failing schools. Parents can use the voucher to pay tuition at any school they choose, including a Catholic school if they wish.
It is not hard to see why students and their parents are cheering for this bill. The Opportunity Scholarship Act includes scholarships for both public-to-public and public-to-private school choice. Qualified families could access a number of educational options, giving them the opportunity to choose a school that best meets the needs of their child.
By virtue of their zip code, many families have no choice but to send their child to the school in their neighborhood, even if that school is failing. Most do not have the economic means to relocate to another district or pay tuition somewhere else. Parents in these areas who desire something better for their children are the loudest cheerleaders for SB 1.
The Catholic school community is also cheering the Opportunity Scholarship proposal. Because of constraints on the state budget, the voucher program starts small. In the first year, only low-income students currently attending a failing public school qualify. Eligibility will be expanded in the second and third years. Eventually every low-income student will be eligible. The increase in the EITC program will grant more scholarships to qualified families who are not included in the voucher program right away.
Not every qualified student will choose a Catholic school, but it is likely that many will. Catholic educators can already attest how the EITC has helped Catholic schools; SB 1 will allow even more families a chance to get a Catholic education. More students in our classrooms is good news for our schools; more students will help keep Catholic schools open.
Citizens who care about Pennsylvania’s future are cheering, too. Not everyone is the parent of a school-aged child but most of us are taxpayers. School choice saves tax dollars because non-public schools often provide an excellent education for a fraction of the cost of public schools. Every child in Pennsylvania is entitled to an education. If we can redirect a portion of the state subsidy to provide the same child an education in a less costly program, isn’t it worth considering? Nonpublic schools should be included, not excluded, from the plan to create a more effective educational system.
A good education helps children grow up to be good citizens. Growing as many good citizens as we can will help ensure a better and brighter future for all of us.
Add your voice to the school choice cheerleading squad. Visit, call, write or e-mail your state legislators and ask them to support the Opportunity Scholarship Act – SB 1. Join the Advocates for Catholic Education in PA to receive the latest news and action alerts on Catholic education issues. Learn more at www.pacatholic.org/current-issues/school-choice
February 2011 PCC Column by A.B. Hill, Communications Director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania.