TURN PA BLUE: EDUCATION, TAXES, AND RELIGION
Want to get an endorsement from the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) without earning it. It’s easy. Just ask Todd Stephens (R., PA HD 151, Montgomery) and Christopher Quinn (R., PA HD 168, Delaware), two legislators who enjoyed PSEA’s endorsement in 2018 while meriting a zero rating for their educational voting record during the previous two years. One of the reasons for their low rating was their vote on PA HD 178 in 2017, which, among other anti-education items, would have increased the Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) by $10 million.
What is the EITC? Perhaps a visit to a number of websites of the beneficiaries of the State’s largesse would elucidate. On the website St. Jude School in Chalfont, PA you will read: “CHANGE A CHILD’S LIFE FOR GOOD! You are already paying PA state taxes. At no additional cost, you can redirect your tax money to enable a child to receive a Catholic education at St. Jude School!”
The Foundation for Jewish Day Schools website in Philadelphia, PA declares: “By participating in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program, businesses and individuals will not only know where their tax dollars are going, they will also decide how they are being spent, all while supporting Jewish education in our community.”
And the Johnstown Christian School in Hollsopple, PA, informs us that “PA State law now allows progressive-thinking businesses and corporations to contribute money to fund quality education and at the same time benefit from tax credits. For JCS this means scholarship dollars for families who struggle financially to make Christian Education a reality.”
Three different faiths providing three similar messages – messages describing how children in Pennsylvania will benefit from a religious education through the support of the EITC. EITC, as you may have already guessed is a scholarship program, administered through the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, and provides tax credits to companies that make cash donations to private schools. You may have also surmised that many of these schools are faith-based.
In Pennsylvania, about 75% of all the schools supported through the EITC and the smaller Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program are religious institutions. Surfing the various websites of some of these schools, it is easy to conclude they exist primarily to instill religion rather than to teach academics. One EITC recipient, the Association for Christian Schools International boasts on its website that “ACSI schools have the highest belief in biblical accuracy in scientific and historical matters.”
The reason why organizations like ACSI can make such claims is that, unlike public schools, that are under no constraints in teaching topics such as creationism as a science, and receive money that ultimately, is subsidized by taxpayers. One popular text series used to teach creationism in many of these schools is A Beka Books. A Beka also promotes a math text that, unlike “modern math theorists” who believe that “mathematics is a creation of man and thus arbitrary and relative”, A Beka Book “provides attractive, legible, and workable traditional mathematics texts that are not burdened with modern theories such as set theory.”
With such an emphasis on religion over accepted academic standards, it is difficult to conclude how children attending these schools can perform well. Yet State law specifically prohibits the government from requesting achievement data on students receiving these grants. As taxpayers, we are therefore expected to take high achievement of these EITC students as – well – An Act of Faith!
One final concern is a type of money laundering resulting from the EITC contributions to these religious institutions. Although the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act prohibits “discrimination on the basis of race, color, religious creed, ancestry, age, sex, national origin, handicap or disability, or in violation of any applicable federal laws,” religious institutions are exempt. Since these institutions receive their EITC income directly from non-governmental third parties, (which are then reimbursed by tax credits from the State), these religious institutions have successfully argued that they can benefit from EITC while discriminating since they receive no direct money from the government.
Commenting on a recent proposal to increase the EITC, Rich Askey, the president of the PSEA stated that “Lawmakers should carefully consider whether a major expansion of an unaccountable tax credit program should come ahead of other priorities like increasing salaries for Pennsylvania’s lowest-paid teachers to address a growing teacher shortage.”
Yet the PSEA still endorsed Quinn and Stephens for reelection even though they both voted to augment the EITC by $10 million. The only apparent reason for this endorsement was that both legislators had voted for modest increases to the State’s educational budget over the years.
Now that Quinn and Stephens learned the secret of currying favor with the PSEA, they were emboldened recently to add $100 million to the current cap of $135 million in the EITC program by voting for PA HB 800. To put this increase into perspective, $100 million is the identical amount that Pennsylvania’s basic education budget was increased by during the last year.
Voting for educational increases is no longer sufficient for politicians to win the PSEA’s endorsement. They need to be held accountable when they spend money on educational nostrums that hinder children’s academic performance while sanctioning discriminatory practices. These are not the lessons children should be taught.