Voucher proponents such as the Commonwealth Foundation, the Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs and Jeffrey Yass collected close to $10 million in tax credits from the EITC and OSTC programs during the pandemic and now they’re advocating for more vouchers that’ll defund public education.
Pennsylvania’s budget for the 2023-2024 fiscal year is delayed because Republicans are upset with Gov. Josh Shapiro’s decision to veto a new school voucher program that would use hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to cover the cost of private school tuition for some Pennsylvania families.
The Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) scholarship program is a new form of vouchers that would be funded by the commonwealth and allow parents in underperforming schools to send their kids to private or religious schools using public dollars.
The biggest promoters of the PASS voucher program include the Commonwealth Foundation, a right-wing public-policy think tank; Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs, a right-wing group that supports “free market change” in Pennsylvania, and; Pennsylvania’s richest billionaire and Republican mega-donor, Jeffrey Yass.
The Commonwealth Foundation and Commonwealth Partners are connected through Matt Brouillette. Brouillette served as the President and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation for 14 years and then left to start Commonwealth Partners. Both organizations share the same office space across the street from the Pennsylvania state capitol.
These groups and Yass previously backed existing Pennsylvania voucher programs, but that support may be driven by more than just ideology.
Documents obtained by The Keystone via a right-to-know request from the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), show that pass-through companies associated with the Commonwealth Foundation, Commonwealth Partners and Yass earned $9.5 million from 2019 to 2021 from Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) voucher programs.
During this three-year span, the Commonwealth Kids LLC and Joshua Kids LLC—which are affiliated with the Commonwealth Foundation and Commonwealth Partners—collected $4.4 million in tax credits, while Philadelphia Trading Inc., a company associated with Yass, collected $5.1 million in tax credits.
Since 2018, Yass has also donated over $35 million to a pair of political action committees associated with the Commonwealth Foundation.
Unlike the Senate Republicans’ PASS scholarships, the EITC and OSTC are programs that allow Pennsylvania’s wealthiest citizens and corporations to benefit from tax credits that are administered by the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED)
The programs are literally designed to benefit the rich. In order to benefit from these programs—which were created with the vocal support of the Commonwealth Foundation—applicants must pass an income test. An individual must have earned at least $200,000, or a combined $300,000 between them and their spouse in the previous two years and expect to earn that much in the upcoming year—or have a net worth over $1 million.
There are no income-related requirements for businesses and almost no regulations.
Critics of these voucher programs include Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, a senior lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center who successfully argued in front of the Commonwealth Court that Pennsylvania’s public schools are unconstitutionally funded.
Voucher proponents have used the landmark ruling in order to advocate for more vouchers, even as this would further underfund public education and pull dollars away from struggling public schools.
“When voucher programs are set up, they almost inevitably lead to the underfunding of public schools,” said Uverick-Ackelsberg. “Someone will say, ‘well it doesn’t take money away from public schools because we’re just diverting tax receipts or we’re spending out of the general fund,’ and then in the next breath they’ll say, ‘well we didn’t fund public education to the level we need this year because we simply don’t have the money.’”
Pennsylvania also has a lack of oversight when it comes to regulating private schools, allowing private schools to discriminate against students—even if they get public dollars via vouchers.
“Private schools can discriminate against children if they choose for almost any reason,” Urevick-Ackelsberg said. “Private schools can discriminate against children on the basis of their sexual orientation, or their religion, or the community they come from or the income of a child.”
The Commonwealth Foundation and the Commonwealth Partners did not respond to requests for comment.