With the legislative clock ticking, Jewish groups are closely monitoring a flurry of recent activity in Harrisburg related to school choice.
Proponents have been waiting for a House version of a school choice bill and now it looks as though there will be two to choose from: One introduced by Republicans and the other by Democrats, though they don't appear radically different.
Last year, the Pennsylvania State Senate passed a bill that would create a voucher program for students in 142 of the state's lowest performing schools. If nothing passes the House by the time the legislative session ends at the close of the year, the passed Senate bill becomes void and the process must start all over again.
Vouchers have long been a controversial issue in the Jewish community, in part because groups considered the idea a breach of separation of church and state, though that opposition has softened somewhat in recent years. Orthodox groups have historically been far more likely to endorse the voucher concept.
Today, there is broad support in the Jewish community for a program in Pennsylvania that uses state tax breaks to fund scholarships in parochial schools. One group, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, has stated its opposition to EITC because, according to board member Jeff Pasek, "it represents a diversion of state tax money to private schools, thus removing those funds from the state's ability to direct them to where they can best support the state's educational policy."
In this struggling economy, Jewish day schools are looking for relief in helping financially strapped parents meet tuition payments. More broadly speaking, the idea that the educational system needs serious reform in order to better serve disadvantaged students has picked up steam as local school districts have struggled mightily with their own budgets.
A bill recently introduced by State Rep. Jim Christiana, a Republican who represents Beaver County, west of Pittsburgh, revolves around a new idea being floated known as the Education Improvement Scholarship Credit.
Intended as a more politically palatable alternative to vouchers, the measure would create $100 million in tax credits to reward corporate support for "opportunity scholarships" to low-income students who attend the state's poorest performing schools.
Proponents of a tax credit approach argue that, unlike vouchers, tax credits do not divert funding from local school districts. Under a voucher system, parents of eligible students could use school district money to pay for private school tuition.
On the other hand, voucher supporters argue that the tax credit approach would fail to create the competitive atmosphere they say is needed to revive public schools. Proponents argue that vouchers would force public schools to improve or risk losing all their funding and students.
The Orthodox Union, which has advocated in favor of vouchers and hired a full-time political director to lobby in Harrisburg on behalf of school choice and recently helped organize a Philadelphia rally in favor of vouchers, announced its support for the Republican bill, even though it doesn't contain a voucher program.
"We'll take what we can get," Michelle Twersky, the O.U.'s Pennsylvania political director, said, explaining why the group was backing a bill that did not include vouchers. "By expanding the current EITC program and introducing the EISC program, more Jewish children will have a chance to attend Jewish schools."
Both the House and Senate bills would also increase funding for the Education Improvement Tax Credit from $75 million to $100 million. EITC offers businesses state tax credits to donate to certain public and private schools — via non-profit organizations that serve as intermediaries — and has resulted in millions of scholarship dollars for use by students at local Jewish day schools.
Meanwhile, Democratic members of the House, led by State Rep. Mike Gerber of Montgomery Country, are planning to introduce their own measure, which would double EITC funding to $150 million.
According to a memo circulated to House members, the legislation would seek to reform the EITC system by enhancing transparency, making it easier for companies to apply and limiting "the amount of EITC money any scholarship or educational improvement organization retains for administrative costs, ensuring EITC funds benefit those we all intend to help."
The Foundation for Jewish Day Schools, which is run by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia to handle EITC scholarships to local day schools, operates at a 3 percent overhead, according to Federation officials, which is far below the 20 percent allowed under current law.
Twersky, of the Orthodox Union, said her group hasn't yet taken a position on the Democratic bill because it hasn't yet been introduced.
The proposed Gerber bill contains a provision that's somewhat similar to the opportunity scholarships notion contained in the House Republican bill.
The Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, which represents federations across the state, is reviewing the Christiana bill and hasn't yet taken a position. The group is also awaiting the language of the Gerber bill. In the past, it has supported efforts to boost EITC funding but remained neutral on vouchers.
Meanwhile, Federation is lobbying for the idea to have the amount of EITC funding increased from $75 million to $100 million. An informal group of Federation staff and lay leaders have pressed the idea in recent weeks with staffers in Gov. Tom Corbett's office as well as with several lawmakers, including State Sen. Dominic Pileggi, the Republican leader of the State Senate from Delaware County.
"We really are focusing on what we can do in this budget cycle," said Tracey Specter, a member of Federation's board of trustees and the board of the Perelman Jewish Day School, who was part of those meetings.
Specter said the EITC model "gives parents more choices for educating their children or child."