By Rich Askey
Every June, Pennsylvania’s educators and parents find themselves in familiar territory — pleading with state lawmakers to increase funding that their public schools desperately need to educate students and keep up with expenses.
Still, many school districts find themselves doing more with less year after year as they contend with rising mandated costs for things like charter school tuition.
So, it is shocking that some lawmakers in Harrisburg want to hand billions of taxpayer dollars to private and religious schools over the next decade — money that will inevitably come at the expense of the state’s public schools, which educate nine out of every 10 students.
It’s all laid out in Senate Bill 1, a piece of legislation sponsored by state Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster.
Among other things, Sen. Martin’s bill would give the state’s two tax credit programs benefiting private and religious schools a whopping 68 percent funding increase next year and provide 25 percent increases each year after. Public schools are lucky to get funding increases on the order of 2 percent to 3 percent in any year.
What exactly does that mean in real dollars? Tax breaks for corporations that contribute to private and religious schools would grow to nearly $1 billion within five years. In 10 years, the costs would top $3 billion.
Never in all the Junes of past years have public education advocates even asked for a 68 percent funding increase — let alone gotten one. Never have they had the luxury of automatic 25 percent funding increases to count on year after year after year.
Yet that is exactly what Sen. Martin wants for private and religious schools that educate only a small segment of the state’s population.
Just as troubling, Senate Bill 1 does nothing to help school districts address rapidly increasing charter tuition costs. In fact, it would make the problem significantly worse.
Right now, charter school operators must meet certain legal thresholds to open their doors to students. Local school districts are tasked with reviewing their plans and determining if they have checked all the legal boxes.
Senate Bill 1 would bypass local school boards altogether, creating a state-level board of political appointees to make decisions on future charter school proposals.
Keep in mind that public school districts are responsible for funding charter schools. In 2019-20, districts paid out $2.2 billion to existing charter school operators statewide. Certainly, property taxpayers are shouldering some of this burden.
Now, Sen. Martin and his friends in Harrisburg want to open the floodgates to who knows how many new charter schools.
Let me be clear: PSEA supports high-quality charter and cyber charter schools. We represent more than 1,000 educators and support professionals who teach and serve students in charter schools statewide.
That’s why we feel so strongly that there needs to be accountability for charter schools and the boards, administrators, and for-profit management companies that operate some of them.
And with charter school tuition costs rapidly becoming one of the largest single expenses for public schools, these decisions must be made by local school boards that are responsible for safeguarding their taxpayers’ money — not another unelected board of political appointees who may have little or no association with the community.
Taken together, the tax credit expansion and charter changes in Sen. Martin’s bill could amount to the largest transfer of taxpayer dollars out of public schools in Pennsylvania’s history — and just about the worst attack on public education we’ve ever seen. Ultimately, it’s our students who will suffer.
Let’s do better. Let’s focus on the needs of our students as we recover from this pandemic. We must be attentive to their academic, mental, social, and emotional needs, and we must do everything we can to bridge learning gaps. Let’s make that the focus of this June, rather than taking away funding desperately needed by our public schools.
Rich Askey is a Harrisburg music teacher and president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. He writes from Harrisburg.