Catholic schools tackle declining enrollment with tax credit scholarships
The Greensburg Catholic Diocese has a carrot for families with school age children next year: $1 million in scholarship money.
The diocese hopes the extra incentive, which officials attribute to a quiet change in the state’s 2001 Education Improvement Tax Credit program, will stem declines in enrollment that totaled 35 percent in diocesan elementary schools between 2007-08 and 2017-18 and 31 percent at the high school level.
Greensburg Diocese numbers reflect trends that have led to a wave of school closings in Catholic schools across the nation over the last decade. The National Catholic Education Association counted a 19.4 percent decline in its schools nationwide during that same period.
In the Pittsburgh Diocese, enrollment declined from 26,000 in 2007-08 to 17,000 last year. A wave of school closings and mergers in the Pittsburgh Diocese, spurred by those numbers, continued last spring when the diocese merged operations at four elementary and middle schools and closed a fifth school.
By contrast, enrollment in Pennsylvania public schools slipped by 2 percent between 2007-08 and 2017-18.
In the Greensburg Diocese, where 2,300 students attend 11 elementary and two high schools in Armstrong, Fayette, Indiana and Westmoreland counties, parochial school leaders are celebrating their best scholarship fundraising year. Dr. Greg Bisignani, a local orthopedic surgeon who chairs the advisory council and enrollment committee at Greensburg Central Catholic High School, said the diocese doubled its scholarship fund this year and intends to grow it each year.
“Many people who would benefit from a Catholic education are afraid they couldn’t afford it,” Bisignani said. “My personal goal is no one will be able to use the excuse that they can’t afford it again.”
Greensburg Central Catholic is among the schools that have room to grow. The high school that graduated 250 seniors in Bisignani’s class in 1985 enrolls a total of about 400 students in four grades today.
Bisignani hopes the additional financial aid will help families keep students in the secondary education system. Only about a third of the students who start out in local Catholic elementary schools go on to a Catholic junior high and high school. In the Greensburg Diocese, many leave Catholic schools between junior high and high school, when the sticker price for tuition jumps from $5,950 a year to $8,950.
Unlike many scholarship programs, the tax credit-funded program is not limited to low-income families. Under state guidelines, a family of four with two children could earn up to $116,216 a year and still be eligible for aid. The eligibility cap grows by $15,608 a year for each additional child.
School leaders will promote scholarships in the coming weeks during a series of open house enrollment events at schools throughout the Greensburg Diocese. The diocese and its parishes provided $5.2 million to the schools last year on top of in addition to tax credit scholarships that totaled $460,000.
The diocese’s larger scholarship pot for the coming year owes much to the Pennsylvania Legislature. In 2001, the state passed a law that allowed businesses to claim tax credits by redirecting their taxes as contributions to private school scholarship funds or foundations that support public education.
Each year, the legislature approves a figure the state will forgo in taxes that businesses can divert to support private schools and public school foundations. Although lawmakers have battled fiercely over funding public schools and colleges, the Education Improvement Tax Credit cap consistently has grown from $30 million in the first year to $160 million this year.
Those who donate in a single year can claim 75 percent of their contributions in credits against their state tax bill, while those who donate two years in a row can claim 90 percent in tax credits.
While records show Pennsylvania’s Catholic and Jewish schools are among the top recipients of tax credit dollars, hundreds of private schools across the state, ranging from tiny Christian academies to the state’s priciest prep schools, benefit from the legislature’s generosity.
A quiet change in the law in 2014 that allowed individuals to divert their personal state taxes to the tax credit program helped fundraisers in the Greensburg Diocese boost their tax credit bonanza to about $1 million this year.
“That was a game changer,” said Michael Lucotch, director of development for the Greensburg Diocese. “It allows participants to re-direct their personal income tax obligation to a Catholic school of their choice for use as tuition assistance.”
Although the change did not affect the total tax credits available, it did widen the pool of potential donors in the Greensburg Diocese, as church members informed of the new option stepped forward to participate.
Those who owe personal state taxes can apply to join organizations known as “special purpose entities.” Once accepted, they fill out a one-page form to divert their state taxes to a scholarship organization.
Lucotch said Greensburg upped its scholarship game by promoting such arrangements through the Central Pennsylvania Scholarship Organization, which is a state-approved special purpose entity.
“I tell people it’s the best donation you’ll ever make. We’re just asking you to redirect your tax liability,” Bisignani said. He noted the Pittsburgh Diocese also taps the benefits of the special arrangement.
State records suggest others may have taken advantage of it as well.
The number of applications for tax credits increased from 4,100 in 2014, the year before the change took effect, to 4,900 last year, said Michael Gerber, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.