Fight over tax money for private school tuition snags education funding bill again

By: and - November 16, 2023 9:22 am

Penn Wood High School in the William Penn School District. Landsdowne, Pennsylvania on June 15, 2023. (Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star)

A months-long stalemate over public education funding appeared likely to continue on Wednesday as state House lawmakers stripped GOP-backed school choice funding from a spending bill.

The state Senate passed the legislation on Wednesday authorizing hundreds of millions in new funding for K-12 schools, community colleges, educational support units and public libraries with a 45-5 vote.

House Bill 301 included $150 million in funding for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, which provides private school scholarships for children in low- and middle-income families. Businesses that contribute to scholarships can receive tax credits of up to $750,000.

Supporters of the program say it provides education alternatives for students in poorly performing schools.

House Democrats voted Wednesday afternoon to strip out the tax credit funding, which Republicans said guaranteed the GOP-controlled Senate would not send the legislation to Gov. Josh Shapiro’s desk. 

“That turns this bill into a ping pong ball,” House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) said.

Republicans urged Democratic leaders to restore the funding and called for a vote to revert to an earlier version of the bill. The motion failed and a vote on final passage was scheduled after 10 p.m. Wednesday to allow the required six hours to pass after a bill is amended.

The House approved the bill at 10:01 p.m. with Senate and House amendments in a 102-101 vote along party lines. 

“There are no winners in this budget discussion. There are only losers. And the biggest losers are the students that are left out in the cold from the amendment,” Cutler said.

Democrats asserted that the Senate has been sitting on a school code bill for months that includes both money for the scholarship program and $100 million in level-up funding for the state’s 100 poorest school districts.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) said that would ensure more of the money goes to students who truly need it.

“I’ve heard time and time again how we care about these poor disadvantaged students at all of these schools. But when you look at the numbers, and where we’re sending the money to, it’s not to those poor disadvantaged students,” Harris said.

School choice has been a major sticking point in this year’s protracted budget process. 

The state Senate recessed for more than a month without passing the bulk of the $45.5 billion budget after House Democrats killed a bill that would have created a $100 million lifeline scholarship program – a measure backed by Shapiro and Senate Republicans.

House Democrats have staunchly opposed voucher programs to pay private and religious school tuition with state tax dollars, saying that it directs money away from already struggling public schools.

The EITC program provides up to $263 million in tax credits this year. To qualify for a scholarship, a student’s family must have an income less than $105,183 plus an $18,514 allowance for each child, according to the nonprofit Ed Choice.

While the House Rules Committee voted along party lines to remove the EITC funding, it passed with strong bipartisan support in the Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) lauded the bill’s focus on addressing the teacher shortage in the state, remediating toxic schools, and providing updates for school safety and security.

“This is a big deal for driving out crucial dollars to our beloved public schools to support our teachers, students, staff, and families,” Costa said in a statement. “Together, we are delivering a top-tier education for every Pennsylvanian.”

Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton) voted to support the bill, citing its focus on school safety, substitute teacher flexibility, and important community college funding, but criticized the overall bill during remarks on the Senate floor. 

Prior to the vote, she claimed the bill does “nothing to help address the most significant issue” facing her constituency: property taxes. 

Earlier on Wednesday the House passed Senate Bill 843, which was substantially similar to the House Bill but did not include the tax credit funding.

(This article was updated at 9:23 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023, to include the House vote on HB 301.)

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.

John Cole
John Cole

John Cole is a journalist based in Philadelphia. He's worked for various outlets such as The Northeast Times, PoliticsPA, and PCN. In these previous roles, he covered a wide range of topics from local civic association meetings to races across the commonwealth. He earned a degree in journalism from Temple University.