By Bryan Carter
Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) recently announced a proposal to increase funding for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC), programs that help low-income families afford nonpublic schools. This funding increase could have immense benefits for children and families living in Philadelphia.
As the president of Gesu School, the first independent, Catholic elementary school in Philadelphia, I've witnessed firsthand the challenges families face when raising their children in high-poverty environments. For their children, as with any child, the availability of high-quality education is the pathway to a bright future.
A recent poll from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that Philadelphians "view education as the top issue facing the city," and that they also "have an extremely low opinion of the performance of the public school system." Knowing this, it is critical that we pursue all means of rectifying the challenges faced by our School District.
And although it is imperative that we direct funds and support to the failing public schools of our city, one cannot help but wonder how long it will take to truly repair such a systemic problem. In the meantime, what happens to the students navigating their way through Philly schools today? Do we let them fall through the cracks as we seek a solution?
The EITC and OSTC programs ensure that the success of today's students is as much of a priority as is the future success of the school system. High-performing, nonpublic schools, such as Gesu School, exist in Philadelphia and have the capacity to help our students today. The problem is that the vast majority of Philadelphia's low-income families cannot afford such an education, making the tax-credit programs and an increase in its funding necessities.
Some view the EITC/OSTC program as diverting dollars from the cash-strapped and faltering public schools of Philadelphia - essentially further hurting an already failing system. Instead, I have found that the tax-credit program gives families from the poorest neighborhoods an alternative to sending their children to the poorest-performing public schools in the state. In fact, if my students attended their local public schools instead of Gesu School, most of them would attend one of the worst-performing public schools in Pennsylvania. Surely our children deserve better.
As an independent school, we're responsible at Gesu for raising 75 percent of our operating budget, which includes financial aid. The cost to educate one child for a year is $10,000; yet, we provide financial aid so that the average family pays less than $1,000 to send their child to Gesu. Of the 450 students we serve, 95 percent are qualified to receive EITC/OSTC support. Our primary goal has always been and will continue to be to make a quality education affordable for these families.
From where I stand, the most compelling argument for supporting the tax-credit programs is that our approach to education works. Of the six North Philadelphia zip codes we serve, four are among the top 10 poorest zip codes in the city. Yet, without relying upon selective admissions, 90 percent of our alumni graduate on time, many from highly selective high schools and 85 percent of these graduates will then go on to college or pursue postsecondary education.
In Philadelphia, our children and families are amazingly resilient in the face of the daily challenges and obstacles they encounter. A quality education made affordable by EITC/OSTC tax credits can open countless doors and give our students the tools necessary for a bright, successful future.
Therefore, I cannot simply ask, but must rather challenge, our leaders to strongly consider the benefits of expanding the tax-credit program and affording our children the education they deserve.