Faced with a projected $304 million budget gap, Philadelphia has become the poster child for the crisis, but every district is trying to cope with three straight years of state budget cuts. Since Corbett took office, education funding has been cut by nearly $1 billion. The state's share of funding for public schools has dropped from 44 percent to 32 percent, well below the national average of about 48 percent.
The low level of funding is exacerbated by Pennsylvania's methodology for funding school districts, which doesn't adequately take into account demographic differences such as poverty rates. Districts may try to make up the difference with local property taxes, but typically fail because their revenue sources are limited. So, they are forced to cut programs, which ultimately affects learning.
School officials from across the state converged on Harrisburg last week to stress that they have tried to solve their funding problems, but need help. The Lancaster district has cut library programs, eliminated Spanish classes in elementary school, and increased class sizes. The Blue Mountain district in Schuylkill County has cut 20 positions and offers fewer electives for students. Some districts have started drawing down reserves to avoid more drastic cuts.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has begun mailing layoff notices to 3,783 school employees, informing them that unless more money is found, they will lose their jobs on July 1 because of the district's financial crisis. The layoff list includes 676 teachers, 283 counselors, 127 assistant principals, and 1,202 noontime aides. More layoffs are also planned at the district's central office.
Mayor Nutter has proposed raising an additional $95 million for schools by imposing a city cigarette tax, raising the liquor-by-the-drink tax, and going after tax delinquents. Union concessions are being sought, too. More than $100 million would still be needed from the state, however, and it also must increase its funding to Pennsylvania's other desperate districts.
It's a tall order for Corbett and the legislature, but they need to consider the consequences. Having poor schools can do more damage to a state in the long run than any natural disaster.