By Melissa Klaric
Herald Staff Writer
SHENANGO VALLEY —
A scholarship program aimed at getting deserving students out of low-performing public schools was approved last year by Gov. Tom Corbett, but the business donations that are supposed to fund it aren’t coming in.
So far, the tax credits offered by the state to entice businesses to donate scholarship money have attracted zero interest from area businesses, according to representatives of the state and the local charity that arranges the scholarships.
“The key to the success of this program is to have private businesses in the community donate money that will give them a tax break. They can contribute to the community – which is huge,” Sandy Baker, scholarship coordinator for the Community Foundation of Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio, the umbrella organization for the Shenango Valley Community Foundation, Sharon, said.
The state set aside $50 million in Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credits for business that donate money to the fund.
Businesses approved by the state would be able to dip into the over $35 million left in the OSTC pot, according to Mark Ryan, of the state Department of Community and Economic Development. He serves as liaison between the state and Shenango Valley Community Foundation on the scholarship program.
The deadline for businesses to donate money to receive a tax credit is July 1.
“It is a matter of the businesses not being aware of the OSTC program. I don’t think a lot of them realize how similar it is to the EITC (Education Improvement Tax Credit) program, how easy it is to apply and get a tax credit,” Ryan said.
There are three different EITC scholarships, according to Baker. They are for Pre-K programs, parochial schools, and educational improvement for a variety of programs benefiting grades K-12. To date, over 3,600 companies have pledged in excess of $350 million toward this scholarship fund.
Ryan said the EITC scholarship program is very competitive and not all businesses were approved because all of the money set aside by the state for tax credits have been issued.
“The difference between the (two scholarship programs) is that the student has to come from an under-performing school” for OSCT scholarships, Ryan said.
Students who attend low-performing schools, defined by the state as falling into the bottom 15 percent of scores on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, and meet family income guidelines are able to apply for this scholarship.
For the 2013-2014 school year, students who attend any school in Farrell Area School District or C.M. Musser and West Hill elementary schools in the Sharon City School District would be eligible.
No local public school districts and only a handful across the state signed up to take in students from the under-performing schools. Parochial and private schools in the area are the only schools that met the Feb. 15 deadline and are eligible to receive these students.
There is no deadline for students in low-performing schools to apply to see if they also meet the income guidelines.
But those points are all moot, since there’s no scholarship money available.
“In order to get businesses to donate to opportunity scholarship, someone in an underserving school district will convince a person from a business to donate,” Baker said. “We need a champion to really get this rolling.”
“This (the opportunity scholarship) is going to take some time for people understand,” Larry Haynes, executive director of the Shenango Valley Foundation, said. “It is controversial – some schools are concerned that they are going to lose students, parents want the best opportunities for their children. This is going to be a learning process.”
Visit www.newpa.com for information on the OSTC and EITC scholarship programs. The site provides applications for businesses to donate, for parents to qualify their child for the opportunity scholarship, and for schools to become eligible to receive opportunity scholarship students.