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‘Trapped’ on the Main Line: Expensive private schools benefit from Pa. tax credits but report zero low-income students

The state EITC and OSTC program was touted as offering opportunity to low-income students. But data is sparse and sometimes contradictory.

Gesu School parent Eboni Scott at the graduation ceremony earlier this month. Gesu, says 85 percent of its students come from low income families. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Any debate over the tax-credit programs that subsidize private-school education in Pennsylvania could begin here:

There is very little public data on the students who benefit.

Backers often say that scholarship money raised through the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) goes to poor families who’d be “trapped” in “failing” public schools if they didn’t have tuition assistance.

Skeptics paint another picture. Because the scholarship programs have income limits nearly twice the state median, they say the state is forgoing tax revenue in order to fund private schools for families who have other quality options.

Based on an analysis of right-to-know records and other state data, Keystone Crossroads found muddled evidence to support both claims. The analysis comes with caveats and strong indications that private schools and scholarship organizations regularly report incomplete or incorrect information.

We looked at 151 schools that administer their own tax credit scholarship programs, and then examined demographic data those same schools report separately to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Of those schools, 57 — more than a third — report enrolling zero low-income students or said they couldn’t determine how many low-income students they have. Another 15 schools told the state that less than five percent of their student body was low-income.

Many of these schools are located in the state’s wealthiest suburbs, where students have access to some of Pennsylvania’s highest-rated public schools.

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