October 2012 Church & State | People & Events

Religious schools in Pennsylvania are reaping a financial windfall from a new law that diverts tax aid to them through backdoor channels.

The so-called “Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit” program allows businesses to make donations to non-profit organizations that in turn distribute scholarships to students who want to attend private schools. The businesses making the donations are given a tax break of up to 90 percent.

The scheme has been adopted in other states and has been called “neo-vouchers” or “vouchers lite.” In Pennsylvania, the public aid is given to students in public school districts deemed “under-achieving” and whose family income does not exceed $60,000.

A recent analysis by the Pottstown Mercury found that most of the schools taking part in the program are religiously affiliated. Although the law allows for public schools to participate by accepting students from outside their boundaries, only five have chosen to do so.

The newspaper reported that 340 schools – 89 percent of those taking part in the program – are religious. Most of those schools are Christian. Catholic, evangelical Christian and Quaker schools are on this list, among others.

Nine Jewish schools are taking part, as are four Islamic institutions. Only two of the participating private schools are non-religious.

Gregory M. Lipper, senior litigation counsel at Americans United, told the Mercury that the fact that most of the money is subsidizing religious institutions is cause for concern.

“The program in Pennsylvania is certainly one we’re concerned with,” Lipper said. “It’s basically taxpayer money going to fund religion.”

But some legislators defended the plan.

“The commonwealth has a number of tax-credit incentives for businesses which provide new jobs for our citizens,” said state Rep. Tim Hen­nessey (R-Coatesville). “Likewise, giving businesses a tax credit for donations they make to help our children get a better education is a proper legislative action. It is constitutional under both the federal and state constitutions.”

Lipper disputed that. He pointed out that Pennsylvania’s Constitution contains strong language barring the diversion of tax dollars to sectarian schools.

“As a practical matter, a voucher or a tax credit is a taxpayer dollar,” Lipper said.

The program caps the tuition payment at $8,500, almost guaranteeing that mostly religious schools will take part. Many secular private schools in the state charge more than that.