It was an unlikely setting for a call center: a conference room high above Logan Circle, within the offices of the law firm Drinker, Biddle & Reath, crowded with well-heeled donors in suits. But it was a special occasion. Last Thursday was “Lottery Day” for the Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia (CSFP), which was giving out nearly 2,000 four-year grants to help low-income families in Philly afford private-school tuition. During a brief ceremony, the crowd listened to a heartfelt speech from a mother who had previously won the lottery. Then the attendees clustered around ad hoc phone banks to personally inform the scholarship recipients of their luck.
It was a feel-good moment, but not without controversy. The event marks the first time that the privately funded philanthropic organization will use a hotly debated program, Pennsylvania’s Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit, for some awards. The credit allows private companies to defer up to 90 percent of their state corporate taxes to “scholarship organizations” serving families that live near underperforming schools. CSFP is the largest such scholarship provider in Pennsylvania, and about 700 of this year’s 2,000 awardees will be funded by the tax credits.
Advocates say the program helps needy students get quality educations. But critics have assailed it as a “backdoor” school-voucher program, diverting resources from public schools to private academies. The lottery event was publicized by the Bravo Group, a firm headed by Chris Bravacos, who also leads the pro-voucher REACH Alliance and sits on the board of the Philadelphia School Partnership, a well-known school-choice advocate. The Bravo Group itself previously served as a conduit for an earlier program called the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, which CSFP also received.
“We’re committed to issuing 2,000 new four-year scholarships over five years. It’s a $50 million campaign,” said Ina Lipman, executive director of the fund, crediting major corporate sponsors: Wawa, PNC and ACE INA insurance. “[Families] are being empowered to get the school that best suits their needs.”
Lipman dismissed critics who say tax credits could rob public schools of resources. “Actually, the reverse happens,” she said. It is “giving opportunities to children trapped in failing schools. When you do that and put them in a private school, the funding for Philadelphia public schools does not go down. They maintain the same funding level, they just have to divide it among fewer students.”
Lipman referred to herself as “as a real public-school advocate,” and noted that her children all went to public schools. Although her work affects the Philadelphia School District, Lipman lives in Springfield Township, Montgomery County.
For extended reporting, read the original post on the Naked City blog.
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