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Pennsylvania “School Choice” Options: Now and Future
Wednesday, August 16, 2023

What Does School Choice Mean in Pennsylvania?

Earlier this year, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court found the current K-12 school funding scheme to be unconstitutional. This decision made it clear that Pennsylvania needs a revision on how education is delivered. One often cited solution is “school choice.” Here we examine “school choice” in Pennsylvania – what is available to families now and what may be on the horizon.

Traditional Public Schools

Most families choose traditional public schools. There are 501 regionally designated school districts in the Commonwealth. These schools are free to attend and open to all resident students within the district. Public schools are publicly funded by taxpayers in the district. However, not all school districts are created equally, with many underfunded schools falling through the cracks as found by Commonwealth Court.

Charter Schools (Brick and Mortar and Cyber)

Charter Schools are public schools, independently operated under a charter granted by a local school district (in the case of brick and mortar schools) or the Pennsylvania Department of Education (in the case of a cyber). The Charter School Law, 24 PaCS 1701-A et. seq., requires that charter schools exist as not-for-profit entities, but they are permitted to be managed by for-profit third parties. Some schools feature an arts curriculum, are located in underserved areas or have a particular emphasis on entrepreneurship or serving students at risk of academic failure. Charter schools must give first preference to students residing in the school district where the charter is located. Often charter schools have waiting lists and conduct a lottery to determine admission slots. Charter schools are controversial because the funding comes from the school district of residence of the students.


A parent, guardian, or legal custodian of a child who has at least a high school diploma or equivalent is permitted to provide home education. Prior to providing a child with home education, a notarized affidavit of the parent, guardian, or custodian of the child must be filed with the superintendent of the school district of residence. This must be filed annually, thereafter, by August 1.  This affidavit must contain the name and age of the child that will be participating in the home education program, as well as information on who and where the program will be conducted. Under Pennsylvania law, specific subjects and standardized testing are required. In addition, local school districts are required to have policies which allow home school students to participate in extracurricular activities, such as sports, theater, clubs, etc. 

Licensed and Accredited Private Schools    

A private academic school whose purpose it is to offer instruction for a consideration, profit, or tuition to educate students for more advanced study. Generally, private schools offer smaller class sizes and curriculum not available in public schools. Private academic schools may be licensed by the State Board of Private Academic Schools, under 24 P.S. §6705.  Alternatively, under §6706, private academic schools may operate under an accreditation by an accrediting organization approved by the State Board of Education.  Families living in low-achieving school districts may be eligible for state-run scholarship programs for private schools.

Private Religious Schools   

In addition to private schools, Pennsylvania allows for private religious schools which are referred to as nonpublic nonlicensed schools. These schools are owned and operated by bona fide religious institutions. These schools must be registered with the Department of Education but are not required to be licensed. These institutions are often tax exempt and provide religious education in addition to state required curriculum.

Tax Credit Programs

Currently, there are two tax credit/school choice programs in Pennsylvania – the Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC). Both programs provide tax credits to corporations that fund private school scholarships. However, these programs have been criticized for their lack of transparency.

What’s Next?

Advocates for traditional public schools including powerful teachers’ unions object to expanded school choice options and, in fact, are looking to unionize charter schools and other options. Most recently, a voucher proposal was debated by state legislators. The Pennsylvania Award for Student Success scholarship program (PASS) (or, also called Lifeline Scholarships) aimed to provide eligible students with scholarships ranging from $2,500 to $15,000. As of the writing of this article, the debate on this proposal continued in Harrisburg forming the basis of a delay in passing the Commonwealth’s budget. Tensions between supporters of funding traditional public schools and proponents of school choice will continue, especially in light of the Commonwealth Court’s recent decision.  Ultimately, the future breadth of “school choice” will depend on the desires of students and their families.

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