Sunday, August 26, 2012

What Your State Representatives Said About the 'Vouchers Lite' Law

Mercury Photo by John Strickler
Coventry Christian Academy is a local religious school approved to accept the state's Opportunity Scholarships
(Yikes, only just now saw the misspelling in the headline. Somebody COULD have told me....)

Published in today's edition of The Mercury is a story I wrote about the fact that so far, the schools benefiting from the state's new "vouchers lite" program, seem to be primarily Christian schools.

In writing the story, I sent identical e-mails to the offices of 11 area state legislators on Tuesday, Aug. 21, seeking their response to this discovery.

By Saturday, only four had responded.

Not responding State Senators were: state Sen. Judy Schwank, D-11th Dist.; state Sen. John Rafferty, R-44th Dist.; state Sen. Bob Mensch, R-24th Dist.; state Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-19th Dist.; state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-17th Dist.*

(*Leach's office did respond that he was out of town on vacation and would be able to reply.)

Non responding State Representatives were:David Maloney, R-130th Dist. and Warren Kampf, R-157th Dist.

I guess if you want to know more about their vote on this subject, you will have to contact them yourselves. (Links have been provided.)

Providing responses were, in chronological order: Republican state Reps Mike Vereb, Marcy Toepel, Tom Quigley and Tim Hennessey.

Here is the text of the e-mail I sent to them all:
My name is Evan Brandt and I am a reporter for The Mercury newspaper in Pottstown.
On 8/21 I analyzed the state list of schools eligible to receive Opportunity Scholarship Students.
Of the 384 schools on the list, only five are public schools and 339 of them have religious affiliations.
I have three questions for an article I'm writing:
1) Do you support the Opportunity Scholarship program as it now exists?
2) Why?
3) Do you feel it is appropriate (or Constitutional) for funding that would otherwise by law have gone to Pennsylvania tax coffers to be diverted to religious organizations?
I look forward to your timely response.
-- Evan Brandt

In fairness to those who did respond, some of whom did at greater length than publication in the newspaper would allow, I decided to post their full responses here so their constituents may better understand their positions.

I have posted their full responses in the order in which they replied.

1) State Rep. Mike Vereb, R-150th Dist.: 
Mike Vereb
(Note, Rep. Vereb's responses stretched over several e-mails and included several exchanges between us. They are included below chronologically in their entirety:)

  • 8/21, 4:21 p.m. From Vereb: 
Evan your information is simply not accurate. And no money goes to any private or catholic school it goes to families. They make the choice not our program. I have read your tirades on this issue and don't wish to comment being your commentary is slanted and not factual. But I did vote for it and do support it, based on the facts presented to the general assembly.

  • 8/21, 4:29 p.m. From me:
Mr. Vereb,
The state instituted the program you voted for.
The state maintains a list of which schools can receive students.
Here is the link to where that list lives on the PA web site.
It is to this list which I refer.
The money does not simply “go to families” seeing as they cannot spend the money on food or clothing, but only for paying tuition and only to schools that are on a list approved by the state. The vast majority of these schools are religious.
If you do not wish to comment on what may seem to many as the government promoting religion, that is of course your choice.
I’m sorry that you do not wish to present your views to our readers. I will, of course, convey that to them.
Kind Regards,
Evan Brandt

  • 8/21, 4:54 p.m. From Vereb:
I support the legislation, I voted for it and believe strongly that its constitutional. This legislation targets the most needy of families who feel they should have a choice to pick where their children go to school. This legislation certainly re-upped a program that has worked for thousands of families over the last decade.

  • 8/21, 4:55 p.m. From me:
Mr. Vereb,
Thank you.
I will include your entire response in the article I am writing.

  • 8/21, 4:58 p.m. From Vereb:

I am just upset because I really like the program, why don't you like it?

  • 8/21, 5:07 p.m. From Me:

As an American who believes strongly in the First Amendment, I have grave reservations about diverting public money to religious institutions, particularly religious educational institutions and particularly when funding for public education is being undermined.
As a journalist, I feel it’s important to make sure the public understands the effect of this law, effects about which PDE and DCED do not issue glowing press releases.
I have to wonder, when this was being debated in our capital, did anyone express concern about how much money a state program would help to funnel into religious institutions?
The vast majority of those on the state’s list of acceptable schools (83 percent) are Catholic or Christian in some denomination.
Of the remainder, 10 are Quaker or Mennonite, nine are Jewish, only five are public and four are Muslim. Those are the facts as they stand today, although the list continues to grow.

  • 8/22, 12:08 p.m. From Vereb:
Public education receives more state money today then any other year in the history of the commonwealth. Rendell covered the mess he created up with the stimulus money, We had it and now its gone. In 8 yrs of pouring money into the public school system, not one school came out of worst performing. I feel we have a societal problem, we have lack of a mom and dad pushing kids and therefore we have kids in school who don't want to learn or worse they are not in school. As a result they become distractions to our teachers. This coupled with over bearing federal mandates are painful.

  • 8/22, 12:47 p.m. From Me:

I agree with you about the use of the stimulus money.
And I see you did not vote for that budget, a vote I applaud.
However, when you say: “not one school came out of worst performing,” you are incorrect.
During the eight years you mention, with the increased funding, Pottstown schools test scores improved dramatically and all five elementary schools made AYP for several years running and every single Pottstown school made AYP in 2009 as well.

Not sure where you get your information on this.
How do you define “worst performing?”
Under the current definition in the law you support, Pottstown would not have the “worst-performing” status to which you refer.
I can’t help but notice the opportunity scholarship law is set up so that no matter what the actual scores are, the state will always have a 15 percent “worst performing” list. So even if nearly every student got an “A,” the school with the most “A-minus” would be on the “worst performing” list and the program would continue.
That seems like a way to ensure 15 percent of Pennsyvlania’s schools are always failing, and the program can continue indefinitely instead of encouraging public schools to improve.
Shouldn’t the goal of this program be that the percentage of Pennsylvania public schools that are “under-performing” be reduced to zero? Under the current program, that’s impossible.
Apparently, it also guarantees a steady stream of students to religious schools under the new Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit.
Still waiting to hear if anyone in Harrisburg during debates (assuming there were some) on this law questioned if this would cross the line of separation between church and state.
When will these alternative schools be subject to the same testing requirements so the children we’re so desperate to help can make apples-to-apples comparisons?
When will charter schools and cyber-charter schools (which are also public schools) be added to the “worst-performing” schools list? Why were they excluded?
Very few of them make AYP, and yet they are allowed as a place send students “recused” from “failing” public schools.
When will Catholic schools and private schools be required to accept the special education students that inevitably drag down the scores of public schools which don’t have a choice in the matter?
I agree with you about many parents not being involved in their kids’ lives. But if these kids don’t want to be in public school and are a distraction to teachers, as you say, how does that change when they go to a Catholic school? How does that make the parents more involved?
And I think we both know that A) the “overbearing” federal mandates to which you referred are primarily the No Child Left Behind AYP mandates that allow this whole testing for accountability philosophy on which the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit is predicated and B) that state mandates are far more onerous than anything Washington has imposed.
What legislation have you proposed to ease state mandates?
State Rep. Marcy Toepel, R-147th Dist.:

Marcy Toepel

While we grapple to find solutions for underperforming schools, the Opportunity Scholarship Program is a necessary tool to give immediate help to students in failing schools in the Commonwealth. I support this initiative because it gives students and their families a choice in their education but at the same time does not take money away from the public schools.

The program mirrors the successful Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, which has operated in Pennsylvania for more than a decade. The portion of the existing EITC program providing for Educational Scholarship Organizations (ESO) currently provides access to tax credits for businesses donating to ESOs and thereby provides scholarships to help students attend a private school of their choice; often these schools are operated by organizations with a religious affiliation. Nearly 300,000 scholarships have been awarded through the original EITC program, and I am not aware of any challenge to the original EITC law to date.

The goal of the original EITC program, as well as the new Opportunity Scholarship Program, is to improve educational choice for our children. Any school, public or private, is eligible to apply to receive students through the scholarship program.

Marcy Toepel
 3) State Rep. Tom Quigley, R-146th Dist.:

Tom Quigley
Evan - Answers below. I also included and excerpt from the U.S. Supreme Court ruling mentioned in answer 3, as well as a description of the Arizona program. Finally I included an AP article on the New Hampshire Legislature overriding their Governor's veto on a similar education tax credit program.

1. I do support the EITC and the recently passed EITC 2.0 because of both the opportunities they present to students, particularly those in failing districts, and because of their significant benefits to taxpayers. I believe this program will be most effective in consistently poor performing school districts.

2. EITC programs provide an opportunity to students they might otherwise not have, get the community and private sector more involved in the education of our children, and help save scarce tax dollars. In fact, over the past decade, the EITC program has provided more than a quarter million scholarships worth $335 million and, for example, in 2009-2010 alone, if the 38,600 students who won EITC scholarships were instead enrolled in public schools, an additional $512 million in taxpayer dollars would be needed to handle the additional enrollment.

3. This question and the supposition it is built upon is simply incorrect. In the 2011 ACSTO v. Winn case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that EITC programs are constitutional, so this question has already been answered by the highest court in the land. In that ruling, the Supreme Court specifically highlighted that tax credits like the EITC do not divert tax monies from other uses.

Excerpt from Supreme Court ruling:

tax credits and governmental expenditures do not both implicate individual taxpayers in sectarian activities. A dissenter whose tax dollars are “extracted and spent” knows that he has in some small measure been made to contribute to an establishment in violation of conscience…. [By contrast,] awarding some citizens a tax credit allows other citizens to retain control over their own funds in accordance with their own consciences. 

Information on the Arizona Education Tax Credit program:

Income and corporate tax credits are complicated. So in effort to better understand the controversy surrounding recent legislative bills, here is a synopsis of what they are and how they work.
Income Tax Credit
Click for a copy of the Private Tax Statute or the Public School Tax Statute.

  • Income tax credits are funds contributed to private and/or public schools.
  • Contribution maximums are dependent upon how taxes are filed. For example:
o Private school tax credit:
  • Maximum for individual: $500
  • Maximum for joint/married or family: $1000
o Public school tax credit:
  • Maximum for individual: $200
  • Maximum for joint/married or family: $400
  • Regardless of whether tax credits are given to private or public schools, income tax credit reduces a contributor’s tax liability to zero. Any balance may be carried over by the state for up to five (5) years.
o If an individual or couple owes money at the end of the year, the state deducts their tax liability from their credit.
o If an individual or couple does not owe money, the balance may be carried over by the state for up to five (5) years.

  • Note: These funds are not refunds! They are “credits.” The funds have never made their way IN to the state, but they are coming back as a credit OUT of the state’s general fund.
  • At private schools, tax credits are generally directed towards a specific child’s tuition, but can be put towards a general scholarship fund. These funds are collected and processed by School Tuition Organizations or STOs (see below).
  • At public schools, tax credits stay at the site school where the credit is submitted and are typically used to fund programs such as art, P.E., and music courses that would otherwise be cut due to budget shortfalls.
Corporate Tax Credits:
Click for a copy of the Corporate Tax Statute

  • Corporate tax credits are funds corporations contribute for the purpose of providing scholarships to middle-low and lower income children.
  • Corporations notify a school tuition organization (STO) of the amount of their tax credit contribution.
  • The STO submits an application to the Arizona Department of Revenue identifying:
o the contributing corporation
o the amount the corporation will contribute as a tax credit

  • Corporate tax credits are available for private schools only.
  • Unlike income tax credits, corporate tax credits cannot be directed to a specific student and/or private school.
  • Like with income tax credits, corporate tax credits can reduce a corporation’s tax liabilities to zero.
o Note: These are “credits.” The money never made its way IN to the state, but the funds are coming OUT of the state’s general fund.
  • Corporations can elect to leave their credit and/or balance on the state’s books for up to five (5) years.
  • A combined maximum corporate tax credit ceiling (meaning a maximum corporate tax credit dollar amount allowed for the entire state and those corporations that participate)
is $14.4 million dollars for FY 2009, and increases 20% in FY 2010, to $17.28 million dollars.
  • Unlike credits given to private schools, corporate tax credits cannot be directed towards a specific school and/or child.
  • The corporate tax credit program in the state of Arizona was established in 2006 as a means to answer the demand for vouchers, which have been ruled unconstitutional.
  • HB 2288 allows for corporate tax credits will continue to increase 20% per year into perpetuity with no option and/or provision for public school participation.
  • By state law, all corporate tax credits must be processed through a School Tuition Organization (STO).

“What are School Tuition Organizations (STOs)?”

  • School Tuition Organizations or STOs are identified by the IRS as 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations that allocates 90% of its revenue towards scholarships or grants to students at more than one school.
  • STOs are not certified by the Arizona Department of Revenue.
  • As of 2008, the Arizona Department of Revenue reported 55 STOs operating in the state.

“How do they work?”

  • STOs collect tax credits or funds from either individuals and/or corporations to be used for the purpose of scholarships or grants for private tuition costs.
  • STOs process said credits by depositing funds into a bank account, issue a receipt to the contributor for tax purposes, and later allocates funds in the form of scholarship awards or tuition payments for students who attend private schools.
  • Some STOs have board members who evaluate applications and award according to need.
  • Some STOs are operated by large churches, such as Catholic Diocese. Other STOs are run by CPAs, and some by attorneys.
  • STOs are allowed to keep 10% of tax credit contributions meant for grant allocations/donations for organizational expenses.
For information on Income Tax Credits and STOs as provided by the Arizona Department of Revenue, visit:

Article about New Hampshire Education Tax Credit program:

NH Legislature overrides veto on ed tax credits

Associated Press – Wed, Jun 27, 2012 4:11 PM EDT
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire's Legislature has voted to override a bill vetoed by Gov. John Lynch that is intended to help public school students switch to private schools.
The bill would provide tax credits for businesses that contribute to organizations that award scholarships for private school and home-schooled students.
Lynch argued the bill would allow private organizations to determine the use of public education funds and would shift limited state money away from public schools because districts would lose state education aid for each student receiving a scholarship.
There were enough votes in both the House and the Senate to override the veto by a two-thirds majority on Wednesday.

Thomas J. Quigley
State Representative
146th Legislative District
717-772-9963 (Harrisburg Office)
610-326-9563 (District Office)
4) State Rep. Tim Hennessey, R-26th Dist.:
Tim Hennessey
I write in response to your email from Tuesday afternoon on the Education Opportunity Scholarship program.

The Education Opportunity Scholarship program was passed to give students trapped in horribly performing schools the chance for a better education elsewhere. Thankfully we don’t have them nearby, but there are quite a few across the Commonwealth.

Public school students are sent to the public school where they reside. Only those whose parents can afford a private or parochial school tuition had the opportunity to go elsewhere.

The Education Opportunity Scholarship program presents students in badly performing schools an additional opportunity to attend a different school, which hopefully will better serve their needs and develop their academic skills. That will prepare them for higher education, or simply give them a chance for a better life.

Since the Education Opportunity Scholarship proposal is a change to the status quo, it is not particularly surprising that public schools individually would choose not to accept scholarship students, even when those students would bring additional scholarship revenues with them. But those schools are free to rethink their position, and seek to join the program at anytime.

The Commonwealth has a number of tax credit incentives for businesses which provide new jobs for our citizens. Likewise giving businesses a tax credit for donations they make to help our children get a better education is a proper legislative action. It is constitutional under both the federal and state constitutions. And it is our duty and responsibility to help students trapped in failing schools to have a chance for a brighter future.

Very truly, Tim Hennessey

1 comment:

  1. Great article Evan. These state reps should be embarrassed that they feel NO DRIVE to improve education for ALL students. This is blatant creation of a LOOPHOLE that is intended to divert public funding to private/parochial schools. Total sham.