Pa. public schools reject scholarship program - abc27 WHTM

Dauphin County

Pa. public schools reject scholarship program

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Natasha Richardson holds the hands of her two daughters as she walks along trash-strewn streets and passes boarded up and grafittied row home facades. She has just picked up her children from an elementary school in Harrisburg.

"I would rather my children go to a different school, out of the district," Richardson said. "It just seems sometimes it's riff-raff in Harrisburg schools. Sometimes the kids are having problems and are bunched up together in one class."

The state does have an option for parents like Natasha. It's called the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program. It's gives poor kids in poorly performing schools up to $8,500 in scholarships, $15,000 for special education. The program gives businesses tax credits for donating money to fund the program.

In theory, if Richardson applied and was accepted, could send her girls to Camp Hill, Cumberland Valley, Central Dauphin or Susquehanna Township.

But for now the program is just that, a theory. No public schools in the midstate and only four in the entire state are participating in the program. They are saying "no" to the money. They are saying "no" to the children.

"I would say the department's disappointed that more public schools have not participated," said Tim Eller, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, which is frustrated by the snub from public schools and the lack of choice for poor parents.

"There's resistance to this. There's resistance to this type of program and it's very disappointing in the fact that there's a lot of public schools in Pennsylvania, including hundreds in the midstate, that have a lot of great academic programs," Eller said. They need to open up their doors and let students from low-achieving schools come in and take advantage of those programs."

But public schools are reticent and wary and not exactly embracing what smacks of voucher lite.

"Programs like this are like throwing a few life preservers out into the ocean next to a sinking ship and then sailing off," said Stuart Knade, chief counsel of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

He says public schools are worried they won't be fully reimbursed for taking in extra students. They're also worried that those children could bring their test scores down.

"Do we want now to have an influx of students from other school districts that we haven't been working with for years who might make the statistics not look so good?" Knade said.

The program was passed with the budget in late June and most school districts didn't have enough time to analyze it and approve it before the current school year started, according to Knade. Every Catholic school and most non-public schools are participating.

For public schools it is clearly easier to just say "no" to the unknown; to shut the doors on kids from poor places - easier unless you're that kid or a mom like Natasha.

"Oh wow! It's upsetting to think they don't want the kids," Richardson said. "Take on a chance and do it. It might be a good outcome."

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