Don’t Know Much About History …

Stephen Herzenberg |

Last week, we released a report at the Keystone Research Center that has me humming an old Sam Cooke song. You probably know it. It goes:

Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the French I took

So why am I humming this oldie but goodie?

Well, because in Pennsylvania, we don’t know much about the 38,000 students who received taxpayer-funded scholarships in 2009-10 to attend private and religious schools under the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC).

Don’t know much about the schools that educated them either.

Don’t know much about basic financial information on the organizations distributing the scholarships.

Don’t know much about student progress, school quality, test scores. You get the point.

Despite receiving roughly a third of a billion dollars in taxpayer funds over the past decade, the EITC program lacks fundamental accountability measures, as we found in our report. (Check out the report, a research update on school vouchers and student achievement, an audio podcast of a conference call with reporters, and maps showing where private schools and EITC Scholarship Organizations are located.)

Corporations can collect up to $300,000 per year in tax credits on charitable contributions to organizations that provide students with private school scholarships. The credits are worth 75% for a one-time donation and 90% for a multi-year commitment. (The program also funds tax credits for contributions to preschool and pre-kindergarten scholarships, but our report focuses on accountability in the K-12 scholarships only.)

The lack of accountability is troubling in itself given the amount of tax dollars at stake. But it also has major implications for a brewing policy debate in the Legislature over private school vouchers.

With zero accountability in place for EITC scholarships, the state is in no position to launch a new vouchers program with a price tag to taxpayers that is at least 10-times as big. Before going down that road, policymakers should focus on strengthening accountability in the EITC.

Public schools and their students, by contrast, face both comprehensive financial accountability and increasing levels of educational accountability. As a result, we know that the percent of students scoring “below basic” has been cut in half over eight years. In fact, Pennsylvania was the only state where public school students improved in all categories at all grade levels from 2002 to 2008, according to the independent, nonpartisan Center on Education Policy.

So let’s apply the same standards to EITC students to ensure our taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely and effectively—and that all our kids are getting a quality education.

That would be a lot better than humming about all the things in this program we don’t know much about.