Pa. must respond to the school crisis

Posted: July 18, 2013

AS THE various elements of the imperfect funding package for the Philadelphia School District come into place, it is important to understand the context in which it was cobbled together, its specifics, the one silver lining and what must be done about education funding in Pennsylvania going forward.

Here's the context: Gov. Corbett, playing out his part in the national attack on public education, cut over $1 billion from education funding statewide in his first three years. These cuts caused a drop in test scores, over 20,000 jobs being eliminated, classroom and extracurricular programs being reduced and over 70 percent of the school districts in Pennsylvania raising property taxes to make up for the loss in state funding.

Locally, these cuts created a $304 million hole in the school-district budget, which required the School Reform Commission, after closing 23 schools, to ask the city to provide an additional $60 million and the state for an additional $120 million. These extra funds were necessary to prevent massive academic reductions and staff layoffs that would essentially make every school in Philadelphia a warehouse instead of a place for education.

Despite the clear need, Republican control of the state Legislature, with its growing tea-party presence, along with a hesitant governor's office, created a reality that meant that getting anything from the budget process would be difficult, if not impossible. Now that state lawmakers have completed their legislative work for the summer, here are the specifics of what has been cobbled together by the state so far:

New recurring state dollars: $15.5 million, which counts the $14 million already included in the governor's budget proposal.

A onetime state grant: $45 million.

Total funds in place (as of Monday): $60.5 million vs. the $120 million request.

And there is still additional work that must be done. City Council must approve the 1 percent sales-tax extension, along with a $50 million borrowing against future receipts that was authorized by the state. The Pennsylvania Senate also has to approve legislation that will allow Philadelphia to generate $28 million by improving local tax-collection efforts. If both happen, $78 million would be added to the previous $60.5 million for a total of $138.5 million. Hopefully, both can get done in the fall. The resistant and tough political reality in Harrisburg means that $138.5 million, although less than the original request, is not a small amount of money.

The fact that most of these new dollars are locally driven and not provided by the state lays out the cornerstone of the larger problem.

The silver lining in this cloudy and messy response is that $120 million of the 1 percent sales-tax extension will go to Philadelphia schools, beginning on July 1, 2014. If fully enacted, it would mean the largest increase in local funding for public education in Philadelphia history. Those are new dollars that the school district desperately needs, and our schools will be able to rely on that funding forever. This unprecedented new local commitment to our schools, our children, our families and to the future of our city is something Philadelphians should be proud of.

However, before anyone starts doing victory laps and campaign commercials are written using words like "savior" and "hero," this fact must be underscored: In three Pennsylvania budgets, the governor has walked away from new recurring state dollars for Philadelphia and other low-income school districts with over $1 billion in reductions in state funding. The sales-tax option would never have been necessary if the governor had prioritized basic education funding as opposed to more than $1 billion in tax giveaways to Pennsylvania's wealthiest corporations.

Pennsylvania's distressed school districts are in many ways similar to the Philadelphia School District. They reside in communities that are struggling, and their local tax base is nearly depleted because of the effects of the Great Recession. Their circumstance is exacerbated because, as with the education-funding problem, there is limited help coming from the governor to support the revitalization of these communities. They cannot fund their schools on their own. The governor has a financial, legal and moral responsibility to stand up for them, but the lifeline of support has been almost nonexistent. The governor and the state he is responsible for can no longer ignore the plight of the children in Philadelphia and other distressed communities.

We must have a statewide response to the school-funding crisis. Our children require us to live up to the Pennsylvania Constitution's directive to provide a "thorough and efficient" education to all students. The silver linings for these districts, like the one that was used for the Philadelphia School District, are running out. Our only real solution is to build the political will to enact a statewide, fully funded and appropriate funding formula that invests in Pennsylvania's children to the level that they deserve. If we ask them to do their best, surely we must do our best.

Vincent Hughes represents the 7th District in the Pennsylvania Senate. He is also Democratic chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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