If you live in Pennsylvania, you can breathe a sigh of relief now that the legislature has passed a stopgap budget that does not cut education funding.
But you can let out that breath in a cry of disgust when you see where much of that money is going and how many underprivileged kids will be left wanting.
With the economy in tatters due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the state legislature never-the-less passed a budget this week providing flat funding for most state programs for five months.
The major exception is public schooling. That has been fully funded for the entire year.
So for 12 months, there will be no state cuts to basic and special education or block grant programs for K-12 schools. Nor will there be state cuts to pre-kindergarten programs or colleges and universities receiving state funding such as community colleges.
That’s really good news in such uncertain times.
School directors can get their own financial houses in order for 2020-2021 without wondering whether the state is going to pull the rug out from under them.
In any other year, flat funding would be a disappointment though.
Public schools have basically three revenue streams – the federal government, the state and local neighborhood taxpayers.
The federal government pays about 10% of the cost across the board. The problem in Pennsylvania is that the state isn’t meeting its obligations thereby forcing local neighborhoods to shoulder most of the costs.
Pennsylvania state government pays a ridiculously low percentage of the bill – 38%. That’s the 46th lowest in the country. The national average is 51%.
In rich neighborhoods, the local tax base can pick up the slack. In middle class neighborhoods, they can try. But poor communities end up relying more on the state to help or else their kids (who already have greater needs growing up in poverty) have to do without.
Last year, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf was able to increase funding for K-12 schools by $160 million, $50 million more for special education and $25 million for Pre-K programs.
Even this victory was a baby step to healing the billions of dollars looted from our schools during Republican Tom Corbett’s administration which has never been fully replaced or outpaced with increased inflationary costs.
Flat funding is great in a time of a global pandemic.
But in the broader view, it still shirks our duties to subsequent generations.
The 2020-21 state budget also includes $200 million in one-time funds to help districts pay for additional costs incurred during the Coronavirus crisis.
This includes the price of new technology to allow for distance learning, as well as deep cleanings in school buildings, new materials, remodeling, etc.
This money includes $150 million received from the federal government’s CARES Act and $50 million from state taxpayers.
That’s good news. Districts need extra money to help with unforeseen costs during this health crisis.
Unfortunately, this money is not being allocated by need.
Those with greater problems are not given more money to deal with them. Instead, the money is being divided nearly evenly.
If you think that’s fair, imagine dividing $10 so a rich person, a middle class person and a poor person could get lunch. They’d each get $3 and change. The poor person can eat off the dollar menu at a fast food restaurant. The middle class person can use it to pay for tip at a sit-down restaurant. And the rich person can light his cigar with it on the way to a fine dining establishment.
In the case of theCOVID-19 stimulus money, each school district will get a minimum of $120,000 while each intermediate unit, career and technical center, charter school, regional charter school and cyber charter school gets $90,000. If there is any money left over, those funds will be distributed to school districts based on 2018-19 average daily membership.
However, why should cyber charter schools receive this money at all? They don’t have any extra costs for transitioning to distance learning. That is their stock and trade already. Moreover, they don’t have buildings that need deep cleaning or remodeling. This money is a no strings gift to such enterprises while other educational institutions go wanting.
Moreover, brick and mortar charter schools almost always serve smaller student populations than authentic public schools. Why should they receive a flat $90,000? Wouldn’t it be better to given them a portion of this money based on the number of students they serve and the degree of poverty these kids live in?
In fact, wouldn’t it make more sense to do the same among authentic public school districts, too? Why should a rich district where almost everyone already has wi-fi and personal technology devices get the same as a poor one where these services are much less widespread? Why should the state give the wealthy as much help as those who can’t meet their basic obligations to children without it?
It’s not like the Commonwealth doesn’t already have a measure to allocate funding more fairly. The legislature passed a bipartisan Basic Education Funding formula that we could have used to ensured districts would have received funding proportionate to the needs of their students.
The fact that the legislature neglected to use it here shows too many in the Republican majority are not committed to equity. In fact, they revel in being able to bring unnecessary money to their wealthier districts.
THE COMING STORM
These measures from the state legislature are a start at addressing the financial impact of the Coronavirus crisis.
But the worst is yet to come.
Across the nation with the inevitable loss of taxes after shutting down the economy to save lives during the global Coronavirus outbreak, local districts are bracing for a 15-25% loss in revenues next fiscal year.
In Pennsylvania, districts anticipate $850 million to $1 billion in revenue shortfalls.
That could result in massive teacher layoffs and cuts to student services just as the cost to provide schooling increases with additional difficulties of life during a worldwide pandemic.
The state legislature can’t fix the problem alone.
The $13.5 billion in CARES Act stimulus provided to states is a fraction of the $79 billion that the federal government provided during the Great Recession. U.S. Congress needs to step up federal aide to protect our children and ensure their educations aren’t forfeit for economic woes they played no part in causing.
At the same time, Harrisburg can do more to stop giving handouts to educational entities that don’t need or deserve it thereby freeing up that money to patching holes in funding streams to local districts.
At the top of the list is charter school funding reforms already proposed by Gov. Wolf.
It is way passed time to end gross overpayments to cyber charter schools and eliminate all charter schools ability to profit off of students with disabilities. Gov. Wolf estimates this would save districts more than $200 million while stopping wasteful spending by charters on advertising and other things that should not be bankrolled by taxpayers.
Another way to generate extra money is to stop letting businesses and the wealthy cut their own taxes to support private and parochial schools.
The Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program allows people and businesses to donate their expected tax bill to the state for the purpose of helping parents pay off enrollment at a private or religious school for their children. Then these same people or businesses get between 75-90% of that donation back.
So if your tax bill is $100 and you donate $100, you can get back $90 – reducing your total tax bill to a mere 10 bucks.
Heck! Since this money is classified as a “donation” you can even claim it on your taxes and get an additional refund – even to the point where you end up making money on the deal! Pennsylvania even allows a “triple dip” – so you get the EITC tax credit, a reduction in your taxable income, and a reduction in your federal taxable income. We actually pay you to shortchange us on your taxes!
Now I’m oversimplifying a bit since you can only use the EITC for up to $750,000 a year, but it’s still a sweet deal for those who take advantage of it.
Meanwhile, this is less money for the rest of us to pay for much needed services. We lost $124 million in 2018-19, alone, to this program. Yet the legislature still voted to increase the program by $25 million last year.
We cannot afford to give away hundreds of millions of dollars annually to private and parochial schools while our authentic public schools which serve more than 90% of our children are underfunded.
And this doesn’t even address the blatant unconstitutionality of the program which, itself, is an obvious workaround to the separation of church and state!
It’s high time we closed this and many other loopholes that allow unscrupulous people and businesses to get away without paying their fair share.
Societies only work when everyone pulls their weight.
The commonwealth will only weather this storm if we stop the fiscal shenanigans and pull together for the benefit of all.
We are all being tested here.
Will Pennsylvania pass or fail?
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