Good News: Harrisburg is Not Cutting Education Funding! Bad News: Handouts for the Rich & Charter Schools

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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.

 

GOOD NEWS

 

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.

 

BAD NEWS

 

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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Pennsylvania Breathes Sigh of Relief As Crappy GOP Budget Becomes Law

Pennsylvania Budget

The majority won in Pennsylvania this week.

After 9 months of bipartisan bickering, the state finally has a 2015-16 budget.

And it’s almost exactly the same spending plan favored by the majority.

The majority of lawmakers, that is.

Voters, however, wanted something much different.

They wanted it to heal almost $1 billion in cuts to public schools. They wanted it to be balanced and not to spend more than it takes in. They wanted everyone to pay their fair share.

But lawmakers disagreed and took the entire Commonwealth on an extended game of chicken while schools had to scrimp and borrow just to stay open.

Like any public spectacle, the conflict centered around two teams: Republicans and Democrats.

The Republicans refused to raise taxes, even after they had previously reduced state revenue to a place where it could no longer provide the services taxpayers expect. The Democrats wanted to raise taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations who were getting away without paying their fair share, thereby increasing services to a point citizens have come to expect.

The result? Nine months of finger pointing.

The GOP-controlled legislature passed the same budget over-and-over again, while Gov. Tom Wolf (a Democrat) kept vetoing it.

There was a brief moment when they almost agreed on a compromise budget, but GOP lawmakers just couldn’t stomach a tax increase if it didn’t include an almost definitely Unconstitutional measure to shortchange state workers pensions.

This week Wolf agreed to let pretty much the same Republican budget become law without his signature. Otherwise, some of the state’s more than 500 school districts would have had to close. He said he hopes to focus on next year’s budget which is due at the end of June.

Wolf came into office on a tidal wave of support from across the state to unseat the previous Republican governor. The people couldn’t have been more clear – fairly fund education and get the fiscal ship in order. But since state legislative districts were redrawn under the previous administration to gerrymander lawmakers, voters were silenced.

Which brings us to the inescapable question: why are voters putting up with this?

“When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

The above quote, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, sums up the proper relationship between governors and governed.

Our lawmakers aren’t afraid of us. Are we afraid of them?

The budget passed this week does increase education by $200 million. but that’s still far below what Republicans cut five years ago. Apparently, they aren’t afraid voters will make them pay a price for this. They don’t think we have the guts to unseat them in their safe gerrymandered districts.

They figure that since most of the voters in their districts are registered Republicans, they won’t have to answer for shortchanging school children – especially those at poor districts which receive more state support.

They figure other Republicans like themselves don’t care about poor black kids. Are they right? You tell me, Pennsylvania!

Likewise, they think GOP constituents don’t care if the rich and corporations pay their fair share of taxes. They think we’ll buy the lie that business works kind of like getting pandas to mate at the zoo. We have to do everything we can to make them comfortable or else no little panda cubs.

So the rich and corporations get sweetheart deals while the rest of us – even Republicans – have to tighten our belts. What say you, Pennsylvania? You buying that?

While no one thinks the budget should be unbalanced, they are betting you will let them push the blame onto the other party. There is a $2 million deficit because Republicans didn’t want to raise taxes. Never mind that they opposed measures to fairly make up the difference. Never mind that they have no problem cutting services so that you don’t get your taxes worth from state government.

Well, Pennsylvania? Are you swallowing that whooper!?

We’ve become used to blaming our politicians. Both Democrats and Republicans love to rag on our elected officials.

But it’s not really their fault.

It’s ours.

We’ve let it get this way.

Sure, the odds are stacked against us. Corporate money floods legislators campaigns so they can buy endless ads convincing us to vote against our own interests. Legislative districts are drawn so that a minority of Pennsylvanians get a majority say.

But we still have the last vestiges of a functioning Democracy here. We still hold elections, and they still have consequences.

If lawmakers felt like they would be held accountable, it would change their actions. Why do you think they didn’t enact that terrible pension plan last year when the GOP controlled both the legislature and the governor’s mansion?

They were afraid of taking the blame. They were afraid voters of both parties wouldn’t put up with it. Republicans only had the guts to push it through if they could force Democrats to vote for it, too. That way, people would have no choice but to blame both parties and not just the GOP.

We need to make them feel that same fear for under-resourcing our schools. When Republican voters in gerrymandered districts show up to their legislators offices en mass and demand equitable school funding, that’s when things will change.

When Republican voters care as much about poor black kids as they do about rich white kids, that’s when things will change. When Tea Party citizens demand the rich pay as fair a share of the tax burden as they do, then things will change.

But so long as we pretend politics is a sporting event and you have to stand by your team, things will remain as they are.

Democrat. Republican. Tea Party. Progressive. These are nothing but labels that divide us. Throw them away.

Turn off the TV. Stop listening to talk radio. Crumble up the op-ed.

Go to the voting booth with the only thing that matters.

Vote with your heart.