State education officials published a list Wednesday of Pennsylvania's worst-performing schools, a move that makes students in hundreds of buildings eligible for new scholarship money and new learning environments.
The list, based on last year's standardized test scores in reading and math, includes 414 public schools in 74 districts. Nearly 40 percent of the lowest-achieving schools are in Philadelphia, the state's largest district.
Students who live within the affected schools' attendance areas — and whose families meet income guidelines — can apply for scholarships of up to $8,500, or up to $15,000 for special education students.
The money can pay for a private education, including at Catholic schools, or be used as tuition in another public district with an open enrollment policy.
The scholarships will be funded through a $50 million tax credit recently approved by Pennsylvania lawmakers. Education Department spokesman Tim Eller said officials expect students to be able to use the money this year, although others say that timeline is optimistic.
Pennsylvania first created the Educational Improvement Tax Credit in 2001, allowing businesses to donate tax-deductible funds to organizations that dole out scholarships to needy students. Total statewide contributions were capped at $75 million last year.
The program, which is administered by the Department of Community and Economic Development, has long been oversubscribed — meaning more businesses would contribute if it weren't for the $75 million limit, said agency spokesman Steve Kratz.
In June, lawmakers raised the cap to $150 million. They earmarked $50 million of that specifically for students attending the bottom 15 percent of both elementary and secondary schools, excluding charter schools.
Officials don't expect scholarship organizations to have trouble finding an additional $50 million in donations, Kratz said.
But the fundraising will take time. Ina Lipman, executive director of the Children's Scholarship Fund Philadelphia, said it's "unrealistic" to expect the new scholarships to be available this fall. The regulations for the tax credit program won't be finalized until next month.
Still, Lipman said she's grateful to be offering more scholarships. She expects her group to help about 5,000 students annually in the coming years, up from about 3,500 now.
"It's really going to help children in desperate situations to succeed," Lipman said.
Critics, however, say the tax credits siphon money from the state's general fund, reducing education subsidies to already cash-strapped districts.
Schools on the low-achievement list are required to post instructions on how to apply for the scholarships within 15 days of being notified of their status.
The new program has the potential to affect more than 242,000 students, according to the Education Department. -- (AP)