Pennsylvania is in the midst of a record education funding crisis with many issues begging for new Governor Tom Wolf’s attention. Wolf’s projected budget may make a difference, as he has proposed boosting education funding from 35% to 50% from the state — levels of support that have not been seen since the 1970s.
The governor hopes to have the ability to pay for education from fees for natural gas drilling, says Rudy Miller, writing for The Express-Times.
Some Republican senators, such as Pat Browne of the Lehigh Valley, have warned local superintendents that the governor’s projections may not be doable and have encouraged education leaders to budget conservatively. Whatever subsidy percentage is accepted, local districts will have to make up the difference.
The legislature limits the tax increases to an annual index, 2% to 3%, with some exceptions that can be sought by school boards. There is also the option of going to voters for permission to raise taxes, which, normally, school boards are reluctant to do.
There is also the problem of teachers’ pensions. Wythe Keever, the assistant director of communications for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, says that school districts have underpaid or skipped years of paying into the system. All this time, however, teachers were never missing a payment. Keever says the system needs an infusion of cash, but he believes that the system is sound and will work.
Republicans think that teachers should transfer their pensions to a 401(k) system and taxpayers should not be expected to make up the deficit. Education reform, they say, means changing the system. Union officials point the finger at charter schools, since the districts pay for every child who leaves a public school to attend a charter.
The governor’s budget would limit the amount paid for every student who chooses to attend cyber charter schools to $5,900 per student.
Beth Anne Mumford, the Pennsylvania state director of Americans for Prosperity, in a column for The Philadelphia Inquirer, writes that Pennsylvanians should get ready for record spending and tax hikes for the middle-class. A large part of the spending will go to public education – first $1 billion, then a $3.7 billion property-tax rebate in 2017.
Already, Mumford writes, Pennsylvania is in the top 10 states in total education spending per student. She explains:
“We have paid for the broken promises of politicians with higher taxes long enough. Last year, as a candidate, Wolf was proposing relief for the middle class. But once in office, politicians find other things they need. This year for Wolf, it’s education. The year before that, Gov. Tom Corbett needed to increase the gas tax for transportation. And so on.”
Pennsylvania has been singled out by the US Department of Education as one of the worst states when it comes to inequities in funding between richer and poorer districts, says Dennis Owens of WHTM-TV. There is, for example, a discrepancy between Duquesne School District in the western part of the state which pays $14,264 per student and Conestoga Valley which pays $2,060 per student.
“We’re essentially throwing money at zip codes rather than students,” said Representative Mike Vereb (R-Montgomery).
Politicians on both sides agree that the education funding policy is flawed.
In The Patriot News, a resident of Chanceford Township in York County, Laura Coffey, expresses her disappointment in the fact that the funding proposal includes cuts to cyber charter schools in the state, since it would effectively “destroy the ability for parents to choose the school that is best for their child.” She adds that Gov. Wolf is putting his financial supporters above Pennsylvania families who want to choose a cyber charter school that best helps their children.
“We are a model for providing a good public school education that is less expensive for taxpayers. But none of that seems to matter to Gov. Wolf. He’s more interested in rewarding his donors, not supporting children who need a different form of public education.”