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Deus ex Machina

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God on Sistine Chapel.jpgYou may have missed this because of the rush of news last week, but the Pennsylvania Legislature passed and Gov. Corbett signed a voucher bill for Catholic schools.

Not that they called it that.

Technically, they are scholarships -- up to a max of $8,500.  And, instead of the state appropriating money directly to parents from the state budget, the money comes through an existing program called the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program.  EITC, for short.

Under the deal, businesses that contribute to the EITC program get a credit worth up to 90 cents on the dollar on their state business taxes.  The existing EITC program -- which totals $75 million a year -- already helps thousands of students with "scholarships" that they can carry to any private or religious school.  Last week, the legislature raised this portion of the program -- call it EITC 1 -- to $100 million.

But, it also created a $50 million EITC 2 scholarship program that targets lower income parents in areas where there are failing public schools.  What's the definition of failing?

Any school that falls in the lowest 15% of performance on the state's testing program known as the PSSA.

If you are a parent within the boundaries of one of these bottom 15% schools, you can now qualify for an EITC scholarship if your income is 185% or below of the federal poverty line.  (For a family of four, that is $43,000 a year.)

To recapitulate, the state will now allocate $150 million a year for, um, scholarships that many people will use to defray the cost of private and religious school tuition. It amounts to a doubling of the state's voucher/scholarship program. My estimate is that EITC 2 will mean an additional 10,000 scholarships, if they average about $5,000 each.

I use that figure in relation to the costs of Catholic schools in Philadelphia: tuition at elementary schools averages about $2,600 a year, at the high schools is approaches $7,000, once you include fees.

Targeting low-performing schools helps Philadelphia because we have so many of them. In fact, you could say we specialize in low-performing schools.

Sometime in the next two weeks, the state plans to list the rankings for the 2,400 public elementary schools in the state and its 600-plus public high schools. There will be a separate list for each.

But, I did an analysis using 2011 PSSA results of the 628 public high schools in the state (the law does not include charters). Of the 94 high schools in the bottom 15%, 39 were in Philadelphia.

It includes virtually every neighborhood high school in the city, except in the Far Northeast. (While Philadelphia has a lot of low performers, it also has two schools that rank No. 1 and No. 2 statewide -- Masterman and Central High, two special admission high schools where entry is based on a competitive test given applicants.)

Let's step through how this works: If you are a low-income parent with a child attending West Philadelphia High School, you could be eligible in the fall for a grant under EITC2 so you could transfer the child to West Philadelphia Catholic High School and cover the cost of tuition. (Or, for that matter, any Catholic high school that will accept the child. The city's eight Catholic high schools admit citywide.)

But, it doesn't stop there. If you are a low-income parent with a child already in Catholic school -- elementary or high school -- you could qualify for a scholarship as well.

EITC 1 has already helped the Catholic schools. EITC 2, targeting low-income parents, will make those schools affordable for them, too. Catholic school leaders have long complained that their real competition in the city is charter schools -- which are free. Now, for many parents -- Catholic and non-Catholic -- Catholic schools will, de facto, become free, too.

In short, it increases choice for parents and I am sure it will fill empty seats in a number of Catholic schools.

Keep in mind; this is not for Philly only. It is a statewide program. For instance, while there are 94 high schools on the bottom 15% list, 55 of them are outside the city limits.

My list includes 12 high schools in Allegheny County, plus five in the Philly suburbs: Academy Park, Penn Woods, Chester Upland and Chester High in Delaware County and Norristown High in Montgomery County.

A reminder: my list is unofficial. The state's list may vary. Follow this link to a list of where state public high schools fall on the ranking.

I do not know who thought of this EITC solution, but it is an elegant one. The voucher bill had become bogged down in the state House, where legislators (correctly) saw it as a program that would mostly help Philadelphia. And they were not interested in using state aid to help poor people (read: blacks and Latinos) in Philadelphia.

This solution sidesteps the whole debate over vouchers -- a word that had become weighted with negative connotations -- and sidesteps it. It creates an objective criterion for doling out the aid, that just so happens to help Philadelphia a lot.

No wonder Cardinal Chaput was so happy about the new law. He wanted vouchers and he basically got them -- at the very last minute, through a deus ex machina maneuver in Harrisburg.

-- Tom Ferrick

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