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Help CSFP increase their impact

  •  Help a Philadelphia family looking to send their child to a private or parochial school to apply for a CSFP scholarship before March 1, 2016.  There is no application fee.  Even a simple application like this can be a barrier for some families, so help others with the process if you can!
  • Donate to CFSP, or volunteer with them
  • Talk to your company about participating in the PA educational tax credit program, which allows businesses to redirect tax liability by donating to an eligible scholarship organization (like CSFP)
  • Right now, the approval letters for the PA educational tax credit are being held in limbo as a bargaining chip in the state budget battle.  Contact your legislator (and Governor Wolf) to voice your concern

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Video

CSFP is also into lotteries!

Below is a video of CSFP’s lottery.  Learn more about The Citizen’s Voter Lottery: the inspiration, the process behind it, the surrounding controversy, and of course our wonderful winner.

Cheat Sheet

  • 96% of CSF recipients who stay with the program through the end of 8th grade graduate high school on time
  • For CSF scholarship recipients, the average income (for a family of four) is $29,000 per year
  • CSFP has awarded over 18,500 scholarships to date, and will serve 6,000 children attending over 160 area schools this school year
  • 85% of CSFP scholarship recipients are eligible for free or reduced school lunch
  • Philadelphia’s poverty rate — 28% — is the highest of the ten largest US cities

Read More

The Citizen's coverage of education in Philadelphia

View all of The Philadelphia Citizen’s education coverage.  Here’s a sampling:

  • Meet the Problem Solver – Michael Gomez of Cristo Rey Philadelphia High, on the North Philly school’s innovative model
  • The Wisdom of Workshops – At The Workshop School, students spend their school days solving real-world problems—and learn to be better citizens along the way
  • It Takes a (Queen) Village – A community split by demographics and two very different schools comes together for the kids
  • Ideas We Should Steal: The Cuban Literacy Campaign – More than fifty years ago, Cuba eradicated widespread illiteracy in one calendar year, and its literacy rate still leads the world. If Cuba can do it…why not Philly?

The Other School Choice

The state budget impasse imperils a program that works when the best option is neither public nor charter school

The state budget impasse imperils a program that works when the best option is neither public nor charter school

Seyna Mushington is barely able to make ends meet. She works two jobs—full-time as a school resource officer in West Philadelphia and part-time driving a bus—but has still fallen behind in her bills. She is effectively a single mom, with three children at home—an 18-year-old niece, her 8-year-old son, and a foster child. And this year, she’s added what to her is an unavoidable expense: A private school tuition.

After three lackluster years at his local Northeast elementary school, Mushington’s son this year enrolled in Gwynedd-Mercy Academy, a Catholic school in Ambler whose annual tuition is $12,300. But Mushington only pays $4,000—thanks to a grant from a privately-funded Catholic schools scholarship program, and from the Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia, a nonprofit that provides four-year tuition help for poor city children to attend private schools in the area. The aid was just enough to give Mushington what well-off parents get by dint of the balances in their checking accounts: A real choice in where to educate her son. “That $4,000 is still a budget-breaker,” Mushington says. “But that’s a sacrifice I have to make.”

Unfortunately for Mushington and other scholarship recipients, that crucial aid may disappear if Governor Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania legislature fail to pass a budget by year’s end. That’s because the budget stalemate has put a hold on this year’s Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credits, scholarship money donated by state businesses in exchange for a break on their taxes, which makes up a significant majority of funds to Children’s Scholarship Fund and similar organizations.

If the 2015 credits are not approved by the end of the year, they will expire—and unlike schools and nonprofits also hit hard by the impasse, this year’s funds cannot be replenished next year. That means up to $150 million in scholarships statewide could dry up, and more than 20,000 students in and around Philadelphia could lose their tuition money.

Gov. Wolf has said his Department of Economic and Community Development cannot authorize the credits without a budget. But CSFPP executive director Ina Lipman notes that in 2003, when there was a similar budget impasse, then-Gov. Ed Rendell authorized DCEP to send out approval letters to corporations, triggering the donations. A rally last week outside Wolf’s Philadelphia office, and an open letter from several dozen educational groups, urged him to do the same by today, to keep children from losing out.

“Clearly— contrary to Governor Wolf’s assertions—there are no legal impediments to DCED sending out the award letters,” Lipman says. “It is simply a case of politics over scholarships.”

“We efficiently and effectively create requirements that end up facilitating great outcomes,” Lipman says. “These families learn to be more engaged in the process. They stay on top of their children. Education becomes a priority for the family.”

At risk is the choice parents like Mushington have made for their children. Like thousands of parents across the city, Mushington wishes the best for her neighborhood school, but is seeking a better way to educate her own son. Her local school, Kennedy Crossan, has a reasonably good reputation for some interesting programs, and for being safe. But it was also hit hard by the District’s budget catastrophe. Mushington says her son’s classes had upwards of 32 students each, with one teacher and a part-time aide, and only a part time nurse, counselor and instructional specialists for the whole school. In the spring of 2013, when Mushington started exploring school options, she compiled a list of 25 mostly Catholic schools in the area that fit her criteria—solid education, citizenship, green play area. She did not consider applying to a charter—even though that would not have cost her any money. “I think charter schools are a leech on the Philadelphia public school system,” she says. “With a private school, I felt like I could help my son without hurting the public schools.”

Parental choice is complicated and contentious. Even the word “choice” has different meanings, depending on where you stand. Those who can, often choose to live in neighborhoods with the best schools—which are also the most expensive; those who can’t, often choose a charter that takes their children out of the local District-run school—which drains money from that school.

What gets less attention is the third arm of parental choice: Private schools, of which there are over 1,300 in the city, from Catholic to Quaker to Muslim to Independent. The elite schools, with their $20,000 price tags, are out of reach for even most middle class Philadelphians. (Though many do offer some scholarships for low-income children.) Parochial and other similar schools are less expensive; but for parents like Mushington, they would be equally out of reach if not for privately-funded tuition assistance programs like CSFPP, the largest tuition grant organization in the area. This year, CSFP is giving up to $2,500 in tuition aid to 5,500 low-income Philadelphia students attending nearly 200 private schools throughout the area.

“We are truly about choice,” says Lipman. “We don’t represent a particular school or religious group. We believe in empowering families to know what’s right for their kids.”

CSFP began in 1999, with a question from businessmen John Walton (son of the Walmart founder) and Ted Forstmann (a private equity billionaire): If they offered scholarship money to low-income families, would those families choose to send their children to private schools? The answer was a resounding yes. The men put up $100 million, raised another $100 million, and promised 40,000 scholarships nationwide. Approximately 1.2 million people applied. In Philadelphia, where 1,200 scholarships were offered, some 40,000 children applied that year—about a third of K-8 students in the city. “They wanted to know what the demand was for low-income families who were given the opportunity to leave their local school for a different option,” Lipman says. “It was huge.”

“We’re making success possible for kids we were saying couldn’t be educated in public schools, in terms of poverty,” Lipman says. “Look at the trajectory of these children’s whole lives, who they’ll marry and their families. Then you’re looking at tens of thousands of lives. That is a huge impact.”

Walton and Forstmann had hoped the need for CSFP would be short-term. But 16 years later, CSFP is still giving out scholarships in Philadelphia, through an independent (but related) locally-run nonprofit. This year’s application period opened on November 18 and runs through March 1, for families who live in Philadelphia and meet CSFP’s income criteria. Approximately 10,000 children are expected to apply for 2,000 scholarships, chosen by lottery on March 10. The grants range from 25 percent to 75 percent of a tuition bill, up to $2,500. (The average is $1,900.) After four years, they must re-apply for the lottery. Around 33 percent win a second round of grants. But Lipman says around 80 percent still manage to stay in their schools through 8th grade graduation. “Schools work with them, we help them figure out how to get there, and some families are able to organize their finances in those four years,” Lipman says. “This is just the boost they need to get there.”

From the start, Walton and Forstmann envisioned CSFP as a partnership between schools and parents, which they insisted was the only path to success. Every family, regardless of income, is required to pay a portion of the tuition, at least $500 per year. And they are also required to show up at school at least twice a year to sign paperwork. The model has worked for thousands of students. The attendance rate for CSFP children is about 97 percent; they overwhelmingly leave 8th grade at the appropriate age; their subsequent high school graduation rate is 96 percent. (The city’s public school graduation rate in 2014 was 70 percent.)

“We efficiently and effectively create requirements that end up facilitating great outcomes,” Lipman says. “These families learn to be more engaged in the process. They stay on top of their children. Education becomes a priority for the family.”

Unlike young Mushington, most CSFP students stay in the city, in their own neighborhoods, where local Catholic schools have taken on the mandate to educate poor children—most of whom are not even Catholic. “The schools are serving children in the same distressed neighborhoods where these kids live,” she says. “They know their situation because they’re part of the community. Families come to appreciate that it’s not about bells and whistles. It’s about a well-disciplined environment with clear expectations.”

A lawyer by training, Lipman became embroiled in education as a parent, leading a 500-plus parent group that spent 10 years revitalizing Springfield Township School District. She understands the long, slow process of changing school systems. But she is impatient with the pace of what she sees as real progress in Philadelphia—and with those who criticize CSFP or other scholarship agencies for skimming strong students with strong families out of the local schools. (In fact, Lipman says, the average income for CSFP families is lower than that in the District, with all the attending social factors that go with that.)

Lipman is a proponent of choice—whether public, charter or private—as a way not only to bolster some kids, but as a way to fix public schools overall. Shrinking the District, she argues, will make it more manageable, and therefore better. Beyond that, she says, we cannot just sit and wait for all children to have equally good options. “There is real audacity in thinking that because we can’t help everyone, we shouldn’t help anyone,” Lipman says. “I think that’s unconscionable.”

Lipman takes the long view for families like Mushington, whose current financial strain doesn’t have to dictate a future for her or her children.

“We’re making success possible for kids we were saying couldn’t be educated in public schools, in terms of poverty,” Lipman says. “Look at the trajectory of these children’s whole lives, who they’ll marry and their families. Then you’re looking at tens of thousands of lives. That is a huge impact.”

Ed Note: The local nonprofit is called Childrens Scholarship Fund Philadelphia (CSFP). A previous version of this story referred to it as Childrens Scholarshp Fund (CSF), which is the national organization.

Header Photo: St. Hubert’s High School for Girls, via St. Hubert’s

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