A New Mantra

I’m developing a new mantra. Though it’s a bit of a mouthful, it’s worth repeating regularly: “We need sustainable and equitable state funding for public education in Pennsylvania.” Allow me to take that statement apart and focus on it in reverse order.

“We need sustainable and equitable state funding for public education in Pennsylvania.”
State funding is critical, as Ron Cowell, President of the Education Policy and Leadership Center (EPLC), explained at the We Are One Education Action in Pittsburgh this past Saturday. Right now, Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom ten of all fifty states in support provided to public K-12 education. We actually made some progress – we used to be in the bottom five – when Pennsylvania adopted the new state funding formula in 2008 to address entrenched, historical inequities (see “A Shameful Betrayal“). But what this means is that we are overly dependent upon local property taxes. In Pennsylvania, schools receive almost half of their budgets – 43% on average – from local taxes (the national average is only 28%). In addition, the Pennsylvania School Funding Campaign (PSFC) has found that “the Pennsylvania Legislature appropriates almost $500 per student per year less than the national average, and less than all of our contiguous states.” In other words, we spend far less at the state level and make our local districts pay far more.

“We need sustainable and equitable state funding for public education in Pennsylvania.”
With our over-reliance on local property taxes to support public schools, we have developed an extremely inequitable funding system. Currently, school districts in Pennsylvania spend wildly different amounts per student, from a low (in Valley View) of $9,578 to a high (in Lower Merion) of $26,570. [PSFC] Our districts average about $12,000, putting us right in the middle of the pack of our neighboring, contiguous states. But, as we pointed out above, this is not because the state is spending adequate resources on students. As Cowell puts it, “We have one of the most unequal and unjust systems of public education in the country.” We not only tolerate these wild differences in school district spending, the state actually perpetuates the problem, especially as it abandons the 2008 funding formula designed to address such disparities. And what’s worse, the state cuts have disproportionately affected the poorest districts, with cuts ranging from around $100 per student in places like Fox Chapel to over $1,000 in Duquesne.

“We need sustainable and equitable state funding for public education in Pennsylvania.”
Public education is a moral obligation, our legal responsibility, and an economic imperative. Our state support for this public good must be sustainable: we simply can’t cut $1 billion this year and $100 million the next and expect school districts to keep operating, delivering effective education. Pennsylvania school districts report that, due to the state budget cuts, 10,000 positions have been lost just this past year, many of them teachers. [EPLC] Cowell reminded Saturday’s audience that “the state budget cuts were not inevitable.” They came at the same time the state was accumulating a $750 MILLION surplus. “It’s a matter of policies, priorities, and leadership,” he said. Former state Senator (and Representative and Democratic State Chairman) Allen Kukovich agreed, “If the debate is always about not having enough money to pay for things like public education, then we’ll never win.” He urged us at the grassroots level to keep pushing our legislators to consider alternative revenue possibilities. One Pittsburgh handed out a flyer making these suggestions:

  • Close the Delaware Loophole: costs our state $500 million in missed tax revenue every year and more than 20 other states have already closed this loophole.
  • Impose a severance tax on Marcellus shale: most states with major mineral resources like ours have a severance tax and no having one has cost Pennsylvania over $314 million since October 2009 alone.
  • Keep the capital stock and franchise tax: Corbett wants to eliminate these as a gift to corporations, costing the state $200 million in revenue every year.
  • Eliminate sales tax exemptions: helicopters and gold bullion top the list of hard-to-swallow exemptions.

Sounds like another new mantra. For now, repeat after me, “We need sustainable and equitable state funding for public education in Pennsylvania. We need sustainable and equitable …”