By Lawrence Feinberg
With the Legislature’s recent passage, and Gov. Tom Wolf’s looming veto, of a bill that nearly doubles tax credits for private and religious school by 90 percent, it struck me that there might be value in revisiting our Pennsylvania constitution for some context.
Article III, Section 14 of the state’s foundational document reads like this: “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”
Then there’s Article III, Section 15: “No money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.”
And, for good measure, Article VI, Section 3: “Senators, Representatives and all judicial, State and county officers shall, before entering on the duties of their respective offices, take and subscribe the following oath or affirmation before a person authorized to administer oaths. “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support, obey and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth and that I will discharge the duties of my office with fidelity.”
Using the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s own Basic Education Funding Formula, it is estimated that 52 percent of our public school students are attending school districts that are underfunded. That’s over 893,000 students on a “waiting list” – waiting for the Legislature to fund that formula and fulfill its constitutional obligation to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education”.
If Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget request is approved, less than 11 percent of basic education funding and just 5.5 percent of all state education funding will be distributed though the formula. At this rate, it will take another 20 years for students in our underfunded districts to have the resources they need.
With the state’s share of funding public education at just 38 percent, Pennsylvania ranks 46th among the 50 states in the amount of state subsidies allocated to support elementary and secondary education, among the lowest in the nation.
While there always have been inequalities among the nation’s public schools, according to federal data the gap in spending between public schools in the poorest and most-affluent communities in Pennsylvania is the widest in the nation, with high poverty districts receiving one-third fewer state and local tax dollars per pupil than our most affluent districts.
Meanwhile, with a wink, a nod and some legal sleight of hand, the legislature has approved House Bill 800, which would divert an additional $100 million (over the current $110 million per year, and with automatic annual increases) in tax dollars to private and religious schools in spite of the spirit of constitution.
Thank you, Gov. Wolf, for your veto of this legislation.
Lawrence A Feinberg is an elected school director in Haverford Township, Delaware County.