Politics imperil 2,000 low-income scholarships

Faheem Sultan (center), 13, was among students and parents at the National Constitution Center to fill out applications for the Philadelphia Children’s Scholarship Fund.

Officials from the state's largest K-8 scholarship program warned Wednesday that Harrisburg politics were jeopardizing $2.5 million for 2,000 new scholarships to help low-income Philadelphia children attend nonpublic schools next year.

Ina Lipman, executive director of the Children's Scholarship Fund Philadelphia, told families at the National Constitution Center that unless the state Department of Community and Economic Development approves $10 million in tax credits for 2015-16 by Dec. 31, those philanthropic dollars "will disappear."

Lipman said that without the state's "approval letters," donors cannot write the checks to support the scholarships.

"The political leadership right now in Harrisburg is holding up" the letters approving the tax credits that companies need.

"It's not a budget issue," Lipman said. "It's not an appropriation issue."

The nonprofit receives corporate funding through state programs that give tax credits for contributing to approved scholarship programs.

Children's Scholarship, founded in 1998, helps cover costs for 6,000 low-income Philadelphia children in kindergarten through eighth grade who attend 165 Catholic and private schools.

The average scholarship is $1,950 per child a year. The four-year scholarships are awarded by lottery to families who meet the income requirements.

Hundreds of parents and children flocked to the center Wednesday for the launch of scholarship applications for 2016-17. The lottery will be in March.

In all, Lipman said, the holdup of the credit approvals is endangering $75 million for Philadelphia alone. She said the scholarship fund and other organizations, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and Philadelphia Futures, were counting on the money to help students.

On Wednesday, she urged parents to hold up signs calling on Wolf to approve the credits, and asked them to sign petitions at the event.

Some have suggested that the administration is using the credits as leverage in the months-long battle with the legislature to pass a state budget. But Lyndsay Kensinger, spokeswoman for the Department of Community and Economic Development, said that "without a 2015-16 budget, we cannot issue award letters, because we do not know what limits will be placed on the amounts of tax credits that we are legally allowed to issue."

In past years, she said, tax credit allocations were reduced or eliminated as part of budget agreements.

Nathan Benefield, vice president of policy analysis at the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, said the issue should be resolved so organizations can receive money to award scholarships.

He said none of the budget scenarios that have been discussed calls for reducing the amount of credits available for companies below the $150 million in the state tax code, which remains in effect.

Parents who attended the event had the opportunity to apply for a special "opening day" lottery for 100 scholarships. The winners will be selected Dec. 15.

Rashida Coleman of North Philadelphia filled out a form for son Zion, 9. He is a fourth grader at Frankford Friends School, a private school where tuition is $8,260 for prekindergarten through sixth grade.

"I want him to stay there," said the single mother of two, "but this would help."

Applications for Children's Scholarship Fund Philadelphia for 2016-17 are available at city libraries, churches, and schools through March 1. They are also available online at http://www.csfphiladelphia.org.

martha.woodall@phillynews.com 215-854-2789 @marwooda