A few dozen Catholic school students learned about geographic coordinates and constellations Thursday with two special guests — U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny.
The two champions of school choice toured Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School, a stone’s throw from the Capitol building, before plugging a plan to get students out of the troubled city school district and into private schools.
DeVos said the visit’s aim was to bring “focus to the need to provide more options and opportunities for students to find their right education future.”
Before joining the Trump administration, DeVos and her husband, Dick, founded the Great Lakes Education Project, which has pushed charter school expansion in Michigan. The couple’s foundation also supported private religious schools.
The visit was part of a nationwide tour by DeVos that has focused on private schools. She started the tour Monday in Milwaukee to honor a city program that provides taxpayer-funded scholarships to send kids to private or religious schools — the first such program in the U.S.
Turzai invited DeVos to “see some of the school choice alternatives in Harrisburg.”
DeVos also plugged a Trump administration proposal to create a $5 billion tax credit program similar to Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit.
It would allow individuals or corporations to donate money to nonprofits that give scholarships to private or parochial schools. That donation is then used as a tax write-off.
Pennsylvania’s current credit, started in the late ‘90s, is currently capped at $135 million annually. Under the current program guidelines, a family that makes $100,608 per year can receive an EITC scholarship for their child.
The similar Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program is specifically for scholarships to students in “low-achieving” school districts.
All of Harrisburg Catholic’s students receive a scholarship funded through the EITC and OITC programs, according to the school’s principal David Rushinski.
As HuffPost reported, all schools under the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg will not enroll students who are transgender and are on medication or have undergone surgery.
DeVos’ proposal would provide a federal tax credit for individuals or corporations that provide funds to states with their own scholarship program.
She said during remarks that Pennsylvania could receive $156 million in extra funding for its EITC program if the administration’s plan, known as Education Freedom Scholarships, is enacted.
The federal scholarship plan would require congressional approval.
After visiting three classrooms — from pre-K to seventh-graders — DeVos and Turzai held a roundtable with local prochical school leaders, Pennsylvania House lawmakers, and Thalia McClinton, a mother with two sons at Harrisburg Catholic.
One of McClinton’s sons, Christian, has attended the school for two years, and the other, Joshua, has attended for one year.
“My kids love it,” McClinton told the Capital-Star. “They love the structure, they love the teachers, they love the principal.”
McClinton, a single mother, added that she receives financial aid from Harrisburg Catholic, sponsored by the EITC program, which makes her sons’ attendance possible.
This visit from DeVos is part of her back to school tour. Sean McAleer, the Catholic Conference's head of education, thanks DeVos for her show of support for private schools despite some public criticism.
— Stephen Caruso (@StephenJ_Caruso) September 19, 2019
Sending her sons to Harrisburg’s public schools was not an option, McClinton said. She cited concerns about her sons’ safety and the commitment of the district’s teachers.
“How is a straight-A student going to go to a class, and you got cut-ups in the class?” McClinton said.
The Harrisburg School District has consistently ranked near the bottom on state district report cards, with low test scores and graduation rate of just less than 50 percent.
In response to the district’s problems, Turzai introduced a bill in late August to provide every student in the district with a $4,100 school voucher from the district’s coffers. The state would chip in another $3,000 per student.
The plan has attracted the support of Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse, a Democrat. But Gov. Tom Wolf, Harrisburg Rep. Patty Kim, D-Dauphin, and the local teachers’ union oppose it.
“Harrisburg’s students and educators are feeling optimistic,” Jody Barksdale, president of the Harrisburg Education Association, said in a statement Thursday. “Teachers are getting more support, and students are starting the year on the right track. Any voucher scheme that drains millions from our schools would stop that progress and set Harrisburg back for a very long time.”
Turzai said his plan would be a win-win, because it would hold state funding to the district steady while taking some students out of the schools and putting them into private schools.
“Nothing will [incentivize] the Harrisburg School District to do better than more competition,” Turzai said.
‘You’re special interest people’
The event also sparked a war of words between Turzai and the state’s teacher unions.
Two protesters camped outside Harrisburg Catholic to greet DeVos and any other elected official with signs declaring “I love public schools” and “Public money for public schools.”
Kathy Barvin, a retired teacher, said public schools do a better job of taking care of each student, in spite of any special needs they may have.
“We teach all children, no exceptions,” Barvin told the Capital-Star as she waited.
When Turzai showed up, he and the protesters exchanged words over school funding. In a video posted by PA Spotlight, a liberal political group, Turzai is shown touting “record level investments in public education” and asking the protesters, “Did you know that? I bet you didn’t know that.”
.@RepTurzai asked us to release video of the full exchange, so here it is for anyone who is interested. It took a whole 30 seconds for the Speaker to start insulting a retired public school teacher https://t.co/EL6G4G7l5r @PSEA #1u #PApol #PApolitics #PAlege
— PA Spotlight (@PA_Spotlight) September 19, 2019
“You have to care about each child, not about the monopoly, which is where I think you folks are,” Turzai said in the video. “You’re special interest people. You don’t really care about the kids. What you care about is a monopoly and special interests. And that’s my perspective.”
Turzai pointed to his record in response to the video on Twitter.
Post the entire video! You evidently cut the segment where I discussed record level of spending on public education. Meanwhile, here is a chart of the facts. pic.twitter.com/cXEqW1UuPg
— Speaker Mike Turzai (@RepTurzai) September 19, 2019
While Turzai has been speaker, state funding for education has increased to a record high of $12.7 billion.
When combined with local funding, Pennsylvania comes in tenth for per-student spending among all 50 states and Washington, D.C., according to Governing Magazine. But the state’s share of that pie lags — it is 43rd in the nation.
In a statement in response to DeVos’ visit, J.J. Abbott, a spokesperson for Wolf, said credit for the increase belongs to the governor as part of “his mission to rebuild Pennsylvania’s public education system.”
Abbott placed Wolf’s advocacy for public education in opposition to DeVos and Turzai’s support for private schools.
Wolf vetoed a bill earlier this year sponsored by Turzai that would have expanded the state’s EITC program by $100 million. The tax credit would also have increased automatically every year the program filled.
Instead, the program’s cap was lifted by $25 million as part of the June budget process, without the automatic escalator.
DeVos expressed disappointment with the veto during the roundtable.
“Secretary DeVos’ record couldn’t be more of the opposite with her long history of funding dark money groups, championing public education privatization, and helping for-profit colleges and student loan providers rip-off students,” Abbott said in a statement. “Governor Wolf has no interest in bringing the DeVos anti-public education agenda to Pennsylvania.”