EITC’s value must be hiked, but public support is needed

EITC’s value must be hiked, but public support is needed

PHILADELPHIA — Everyone worries about something. Some people worry about their health and others about their safety. Nonpublic school parents, particularly those in the Jewish community, worry about tuition.

Every Jewish child should have the chance to attend a Jewish school, but the cost of tuition is too high for many parents.  I know some parents in my community who work three jobs in order to afford a Jewish education for their children. I know other parents that have been laid off and are forced to send their children to public school.

Thanks to Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, Pennsylvania parents are much better off than their New Jersey and New York counterparts.  According to the Philadelphia Jewish Federation, 22 percent of students at participating Jewish schools receive a scholarship funded by the EITC. These scholarships are a lifeline for parents, many of whom would otherwise have to send their children to either public school or to schools, many of which struggle to accept students paying little or nothing in tuition.

Yet many of the remaining 78 percent of students who meet the EITC’s income limits are nonetheless denied scholarships because there simply is not enough money. For the past five years, funding for the EITC has remained flat at $75 million per year, and was even cut to $60 million in 2009 and 2010. Though $75 million may sound like a lot of money, only $44.7 million are available for scholarships (the rest is set aside for preschool and public school programs) and inflation has reduced the real value of those scholarships by a tenth since 2007.

(The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh reports that 46 percent of 2011-2012 day school students in grades K-12 received EITC-funded scholarships. No student has been denied a scholarship due to lack of funds, though the amount each student receives may fluctuate.)

By comparison, Florida’s tax credit program provides $175 million in tax credit scholarships each year and automatically expands by 25 percent each year that all available scholarship tax credits are claimed (which should be every year for quite some time).

In order to keep up with Pennsylvania’s growing population, rising tuition costs, and continued inflation, the EITC must be drastically increased and must have a mechanism to automatically expand each year.

While there are numerous proposals to assist families with sending their children to schools that fit their needs, whether it is a Jewish Day School, a special needs school or one with a specific academic program, the quickest and easiest way to assure more options is to have the existing EITC program funding increase to $100 million.  

In recent months, Pennsylvania citizens have sent thousands of phone calls, emails, and letters to their legislators in a show of grassroots support for expanded school choice. For its part, the Orthodox Union co-sponsored a rally in Philadelphia May 30 in support of EITC expansion. In the days leading up to the rally, my phone did not stop ringing and my email inbox was full. Parents were calling and writing to ask what they can do to help our school choice efforts. Parents understand just how important the EITC is for their children, and they want to do everything they can to see an increase approved.

Parents deserve access to programs that help pay for their children’s education and students deserve adequate educational resources and services.  Our proven and successful EITC program does this and needs your support.

(Michelle Twersky, Pennsylvania director of political affairs for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America [OU], can be reached at twerskym@ou.org.)