The decision on whether to massively expand school choice availability in Pennsylvania or leave it as it stands – with tens of thousands of families turned away each year – will soon land on Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk.
After a spirited debate Tuesday afternoon, the state Senate opted to pass House Bill 800 on a 28-21 vote. The legislation immediately raises by $100 million the current cap on the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program and provides for annual increases of 10 percent if the program is within 10 percent of hitting the cap in any given year.
Whether the governor will sign the bill is in question, with a number of onlookers, including Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, calling on Wolf to veto the legislation.
The program functions by allowing businesses to earn tax credits by funding scholarships for families that qualify to attend private schools in the state. An analysis by the Commonwealth Foundation last year found that about half of the families that applied for scholarships under the EITC program – about 50,000 – were denied because the program had reached its limit for the year.
The new legislation also raises the maximum family income to be eligible for EITC funds to $95,000, a provision that drew the ire of several Democratic senators Tuesday when the bill was being debated.
Williams was particularly incensed. He told his colleagues that he’d gone against many in his own party to support the creation of the EITC because he was hopeful that it would have the greatest impact in poverty-stricken areas with poor schools. And at first, he said, that’s what it did.
“[But] $95,000 is not just middle income in Pennsylvania, it's up to upper echelons,” Williams said. “This program is evolving in a way that frankly, I – unexpectedly and most importantly, embarrassingly – am connected to today.”
Sen. John Blake, D-Scranton, who similarly touted his past record in voting for school choice legislation, took issue with the automatic escalator in the bill, noting that in the past when he’d tried to get measures passed that obligated future spending, he was told his plans would tie the hands of future lawmakers.
“This particular bill would lock in $600 million in forgone revenue over 10 years,” Blake said. “It would be fixed. Nothing we can do about it unless we change the law.”
But to Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, Blake’s own comments point to the solution to any future crisis caused by the EITC expansion – the fact that future lawmakers could repeal the expansion just as easily as they enact any legislation.
“If things change around here and the economy changes and this becomes an unaffordable approach, it just takes a statute of the legislature to change that, as we did in phasing out the capital stock and franchise tax,” Corman said.
Corman also argued that the EITC would still be doing what Williams wanted, helping to offer families in difficult financial circumstance an option to send their children to better schools.
“You know, we don't want to have just one option for parents,” Corman said. “And one of those options is a parochial school, which obviously has a cost. And so if that's a choice, and we don't have this type of a program, then that choice is only for those who can afford it, not for people who cannot afford it.”