Deathly ill public ed needs state meds

Posted: June 17, 2013

I'M CALLING IT the Harrisburg Syndrome: the chronic and costly practice of refusing to invest responsibly in education.

Symptoms far exceed the number of schools closed - roughly two dozen or so in Philadelphia alone - and probably approach the 20,000 school employees furloughed statewide since Gov. Corbett cut almost $900 million from public education two years ago.

A physician would look at the condition of public education in Pennsylvania and call for broad-spectrum antibiotics in the form of money. Not just your garden-variety antibiotic, but consistent, broad-based funding - similar to what's advancing in California - to provide for the "thorough and efficient" education system called for in our state constitution.

There, I said it - taxes. Taxes dedicated to public education and not subject to political whims.

I take pride in my decades as appropriations chairman, when I fought for and won stronger commitments to education. However, I realize now that years of progress have been wiped out by a couple of budgets that ruin economic opportunities, accelerate brain drain and choke urban, suburban and rural taxpayers.

California has ordered the antibiotic. Last November, voters approved Proposition 30, which calls for income-tax increases that will boost California's K-12 budget by roughly $1 billion.

Pennsylvania's miserly record of supporting public education - only nine states contribute a lower percentage of state-education funding than Pennsylvania - hurts far more than does biting the bullet and investing responsibly in education.

Stemming the Harrisburg Syndrome does not entail more local tax increases, which are yet another symptom of Harrisburg's refusal to invest responsibly in education.

I empathize with Philadelphia officials. Proposing new taxes and tax increases is never easy or popular, even when the Philadelphia School District is facing a $300 million shortfall.

Seriously - a tax on drinks? It would take a lot of million-dollar margaritas to make up for the 3,800 furlough slips that just went out to Philadelphia school employees.

Education funding is not a Philadelphia problem. It requires a foundational, state approach, especially from the Harrisburg lawmakers who signed off on the education cuts that have left schools and taxpayers across the state reeling.

Sorry, Republican House members, but the $10 million boost in education funding you're offering to the Corbett proposal is no balm for the gaping, statewide wound.

Roughly 70 percent of Pennsylvania's public-school districts have been forced to raise property taxes while cutting programs as state support for education has dwindled from 44 percent to 32 percent since Gov. Corbett took office.

Just ask the schools about the symptoms. A recent joint survey by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators found that :

*  75 percent of school districts statewide plan to reduce instructional programming in the next school year.

*  47 percent of school districts expect to increase class size.

*  30 percent of the districts plan to reduce electives, such as those in foreign languages, arts, music, physical education and even some courses in math, science and English.

*  23 percent of school districts plan to delay purchasing textbooks.

*  22 percent plan to reduce or eliminate programs that provide extra help or tutoring for struggling students.

*  13 percent indicate they plan to eliminate summer-school programs.

The Harrisburg Syndrome shows no signs of abating. The House recently signed off on cutting the corporate net-income tax to 6.99 percent from 9.99 percent. That's right - taxpayers across the state are being hammered by local school taxes while big business gets a tax cut.

What makes the Harrisburg Syndrome so exasperating is that we've seen collective moments of lucidity when education is treated as the currency of progress.

More than 93 percent of Pennsylvania's public-school districts reached their academic benchmarks earlier this decade when we linked state funding to the "Costing Out Study" that targeted the effects of chronic state underfunding.

Today, the blather about "money doesn't guarantee good schools" continues to be heard, even as schools and taxpayers wither under the boot heel of disinvestment by the state.

Either we accept public education as one of democracy's greatest gifts to the world, or we continue with the Harrisburg Syndrome of expecting dividends from something that some refuse to invest in responsibly with state revenues.


Dwight Evans represents the 203rd legislative district in Philadelphia.

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