No Accountability: Pennsylvania’s Track Record Using Taxpayer Dollars to Pay for Private and Religious School Tuition

Stephen Herzenberg
Publication Date: 
April 7, 2011

Executive Summary

Pennsylvania policymakers are currently considering creating a new program that would, once fully phased in, offer taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend religious or other private schools to all low-income school children. One issue that has emerged during consideration of this proposal concerns the accountability provisions that should accompany a new voucher program.

A logical starting point for designing an accountability system for a new voucher program is the accountability experience of Pennsylvania’s existing program that diverts taxpayer dollars to private schools.

Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program. Launched in 2001-02, this program in 2009-10 provided scholarships to 38,000 students to attend private and religious schools. This is 10,000 more students than in the state’s second-largest school district, the city of Pittsburgh.

This briefing paper reviews the experience of the EITC program, including its size and growth over time, the areas of the state it primarily serves, and the accountability mechanisms that oversee schools that receive taxpayer dollars to educate Pennsylvania school children under the EITC. We find that:

  • The EITC program serves primarily large urban areas of the state, especially in southeastern and south central Pennsylvania, and in Allegheny County.
  • Twenty-two counties do not have a single so-called “Scholarship Organization,” the non-profit intermediaries that receive tax credits that divert business taxes from the General Fund to the EITC program.
  • Most private and religious schools in Pennsylvania are concentrated in the South East and South Central Pennsylvania, and in Allegheny County. The geographical distribution of EITC scholarship organizations mirrors this geographical distribution, and provides an indication of where taxpayer funds would likely go under a new voucher program as well.

When it comes to educational accountability, the simple finding is that the EITC program has no accountability mechanisms.

  • Schools that educate EITC scholarship children are not required to report on children’s progress or to provide other information documenting school quality. In fact, legislation now prohibits state agencies from asking for information on student achievement.
  • Students on EITC scholarship are not required by the state to take any tests.
  • No data been collected on the socio-economic characteristics of EITC scholarship recipients or their families, their communities, or the student population of private schools scholarship recipients attend. Such data would be necessary to analyze systematically the overall achievement of EITC students compared to students in public schools.
  • As a result of the complete absence of any data, Pennsylvania knows nothing about the outcomes of a program that has in its 10-year life span received roughly a third of a billion dollars to educate school children at religious and other private schools.

The lack of accountability governing taxpayer dollars diverted to the EITC program stands in stark contrast to the increasing accountability faced by public schools and their students. Pennsylvania’s public schools are transparent in their operation and held accountable for student achievement and financial management. The increasing accountability faced by public schools has enabled the documentation of significant progress by Pennsylvania schools over the past decade. Indeed, Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that has improved achievement in all subjects and grade levels since 2002, according to the Center on Education Policy.

If a large literature existed documenting the superiority of private and religious schools, the lack of any accountability system for a large-scale voucher program might be less of a concern. There is no such evidence, however. As detailed in Attachment A, the research literature on voucher experiments in other states shows that they do not improve educational outcomes. Educational rankings of states and nations provide another sort of evidence. State and international rankings show that widespread use of vouchers is not a distinguishing characteristic of any of the highest performing educational systems.

The inadequate accountability in Pennsylvania’s existing program for using public funds to support private school students suggests that Pennsylvania is not ready for a 10-fold or greater new taxpayer-funded voucher program.

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