Last updated: February 16. 2013 5:24PM - 347 Views

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Private and religious schools in Luzerne County have responded quickly to take advantage of the state‚??s new ‚??Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit‚?Ě program.

Ten schools have agreed to accept students who qualify for scholarships, and three scholarship organizations have been created to collect money from businesses and dole it out as scholarships.

With the start of school close, using the new program to help students this year will likely be tough, but not impossible.

‚??It‚??s a very compressed timeline,‚?Ě MMI President Thomas Hood said about the Freeland school‚??s quick action in setting up a scholarship organization, soliciting contributions and trying to lure students. ‚??We are out talking to businesses that want to participate.‚?Ě

‚??There‚??s only two weeks to go before school starts,‚?Ě Wyoming Seminary spokeswoman Gail Smallwood said, ‚??We need to see who is going to make contributions to our school and see how much money they are going to contribute.‚?Ě

Nonprofit foundations

MMI and Wyoming Seminary set up nonprofit foundations to collect funds for the program. The Diocese of Scranton had its existing foundation ‚?? long accepting money and doling out scholarships through the similar ‚??Education Improvement Tax Credit‚?Ě program ‚?? approved to serve the same function in the new program.

Both programs allow businesses to contribute to a nonprofit organization and receive tax credits for a percentage of the amount donated. The organization then determines criteria for awarding the money as scholarships, following basic state rules.

But the EITC program was not linked to public school performance. The Opportunity Scholarships are available to students who live in the ‚??attendance zone‚?Ě of public schools on a list of ‚??low achieving‚?Ě schools drawn up annually by the state. That list is comprised of the bottom 15 percent of schools as measured by state math and reading test results.

Locally, two schools in Hazleton Area School District and four in Wilkes-Barre Area made the list this year. In particular, Hazleton Area High School is on the list ‚?? a school that has an attendance zone encompassing the entire district.

Hood said MMI has received inquiries from parents interested in moving children to the school, though there has to be money to give out first. He said the school has room for perhaps nine or 10 students.

The way the law is written, the scholarships can theoretically be used for students already attending a private or parochial school. Hood said he expects any money from the new program will be used only for new students.

Smallwood and Diocese of Scranton spokesman Bill Genello said it could be used for both new and existing students, though Smallwood added this year‚??s students already have their financial aid set up.

‚??We need to see if we receive any Opportunity Scholarship funds from businesses prior to the beginning of school on Aug. 27,‚?Ě Smallwood said, ‚??and if so those funds will be available for new students who apply and meet our admission standards.‚?Ě

Diocese involvement

Along with MMI and Wyoming Seminary, The Diocese of Scranton made Holy Redeemer High School and six elementary schools ‚??receiving schools‚?Ě in Luzerne County, meaning they would accept scholarship students under the program. Immanuel Christian School in Hazleton, an independent Christian school, is also a receiving school.

MMI, Wyoming Seminary and the Diocese will still require students to meet their admission requirements, but will impose no other restrictions beyond those set up by the state.

The basic requirements are that the student live in the attendance zone of a low achieving school and have a family income of $60,000 or less for one child, plus ‚??$12,000 for each dependent member of the household.‚?Ě

The financial threshold increases to $75,000 after June 30, 2013.

Wyoming Seminary and the diocesan schools have room for more students, but Smallwood and Genello both said it would be impossible to give precise numbers on short notice.

The program ‚??is so new that we are in the process of working through all the details and we expect to have all those details finalized in time for the 2013-14 school year,‚?Ě Smallwood said.

All three praised the program for providing more choice to parents, though critics note that unless they are public schools ‚?? which can also accept students with the scholarships ‚?? the receiving schools are not held to the same accountability as public schools.

The diocese has had substantial success with the EITC program, generating nearly $9.75 million in contributions that helped 9,500 students since 2001, Genello noted.

‚??We are confident that the additional funding and expanded program will allow the Diocese to serve even more families who desire Catholic school education for their children.‚?Ě Genello wrote in an email.

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