Wolf, lawmakers need to think big on education funding | Opinion

(U.S. Department of Education / Flickr)

By Susan Spicka

In his annual budget address to lawmakers this Tuesday, many public education advocates are hoping that Gov. Tom Wolf will propose, and that the Legislature will support, a bold new investment in public education that includes at least $400 million in basic education funding, $100 million in special education funding, and $10 million in funding for career and technical education.

Public education – and how it should be funded — was a core issue in last year’s elections in Pennsylvania. Voters chose to re-elect Wolf, who ran on his record of investing in education and restoring past cuts in school funding. They also chose to oust state representatives and senators who didn’t support our children’s public schools and elected pro-public education candidates to replace them.

While state lawmakers have supported increases in funding for public schools over the past four years, a recent report issued by the PA Association of School Administrators (PASA) and the PA Association of School Business Officials documents the staggering inadequacy of these new investments.

This report finds that from 2010-2011 to 2016-2017 mandated cost increases for school district pension, charter school tuition, and special education costs outstripped state funding increases for school districts by a whopping $2 billion.

This means that over the past seven years, school districts have made up this $2 billion shortfall in their budgets by increasing local property taxes; cutting teachers, programs, and services for students; delaying safety and maintenance projects in schools; or all of the above.

Shuttered schools, padlocked libraries, teacher furloughs, exploding class sizes, crumbling and unhealthy buildings, eliminated music and art programs, and other deep deprivations have become commonplace in public schools throughout Pennsylvania. These have also, regrettably, become acceptable to many state lawmakers, who have steadfastly refused to support significant increases in state funding for public education.

State funding in Pennsylvania is now so inadequate that even school safety and security are becoming a luxury. Many school districts are simply unable to raise enough funding through local property tax increases to pay for needed physical improvements and staffing.

Because these funding gaps are so great, the status quo of modest state funding increases each year is not only unacceptable, it is unsustainable.

A recent study completed by Temple University’s Center on Regional Politics projects that without significant increases in state funding, within 5 years, 60 percent of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts will be facing annual deficits totaling approximately $110 million.

These districts, which cannot raise significant funding on the local level, will face an annual ritual of raising taxes and making classroom cuts that will have no end in sight.

In addition to supporting significant increases in state funding, Wolf and state lawmakers must also reduce wasteful spending on state-mandated overpayments to charter schools this budget season.  This would return hundreds of millions of dollars to school districts without any increases in state or local taxes.

It is unacceptable that Pennsylvanians must pay higher property taxes and students must lose critical opportunities in their schools because the legislature mandates that school districts send more funding to charter schools than they actually spend educating students.

Under current law, charter schools reap a profit off of students with disabilities and are allowed to spend excess special education dollars on other things.

In 2014-2015, charter schools received and kept more than $100 million in excess special education payments. Lawmakers must apply the special education funding formula to charter schools to eliminate these overpayments. This will keep precious special education dollars in school districts where they will both pay for services for children with disabilities and reduce the need for property tax increases.

Lawmakers must also end enormous overpayments to Pennsylvania’s state-authorized, cyber-charter schools.

Cyber schools deliver education over the internet to students in their own homes, yet state law mandates that school districts pay them the same per student tuition as brick-and-mortar charter schools. Tuition rates range from $7,300 to more than $40,000 per student each year.

Evidence of excess funding in cyber-charters can be found in many places, including schools’ expensive advertising campaigns and, in multiple high-profile fraud cases, millions of dollars siphoned away from educating children and into the pockets (and vacation homes and an airplane) of chief executives.

We are counting on the governor to keep his promise to make a bold investment in public education that will not only keep school districts from falling behind, but that will also allow districts to create new opportunities for students so they can build a bright future for themselves.

Susan Spicka is executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania. She writes from Shippensburg, Pa. 

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