New school year, same old fund­ing prob­lem

The Boyertown Area Times - - OPINION -

A new school year is un­der­way. Stu­dents have new clothes, new pen­cils and back­packs, and in some dis­tricts, new build­ings to ex­plore.

As this new year be­gins, a lin­ger­ing is­sue looms over pub­lic schools in our re­gion.

Fam­i­lies, ed­u­ca­tors and prop­erty own­ers have been press­ing for decades to change Penn­syl­va­nia’s pub­lic school fund­ing and fix a sys­tem that has been bro­ken for 40 years.

To­day, as stu­dents trek to their class­rooms in a new school year, Penn­syl­va­nia has the dis­tinc­tion of the widest fund­ing gap in the na­tion be­tween wealthy and poor dis­tricts. The vic­tims are not only the stu­dents in poorer dis­tricts but also prop­erty own­ers who carry the tax bur­den of fund­ing ed­u­ca­tion. The state is ranked 47th among the 50 states for its fund­ing share com­pared to states who ded­i­cate rev­enue to pub­lic schools from state lot­ter­ies, busi­ness taxes and other broad sources.

In Penn­syl­va­nia, the prop­erty tax and the un­der­fund­ing of poorer schools is not an is­sue for schools in coun­ties where real es­tate value is ad­e­quate to ed­u­cate their stu­dents. In the ur­ban ar­eas and towns of south­east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia, how­ever, there are more stu­dents and a greater need.

Fix­ing the prob­lem would mean spread­ing the bur­den, which is not in the realm of po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity.

How long has this is­sue ex­isted?

In a re­cent col­umn which ap­peared as a paid ad­ver­to­rial in The Mer­cury, for­mer ed­i­to­rial writer Thomas Hyl­ton re­called writ­ing about the is­sue in 1974.

He pointed to an ar­ti­cle in March of that year which car­ried the head­line: “Sen­a­tor Hope­ful for Early Pas­sage of School Tax Bill.”

The ar­ti­cle quoted thenS­tate Sen. John Stauf­fer: “Groups have called me from all over the state to come to their meet­ings and ex­plain my bill. I now feel the bill has a re­al­is­tic chance of pas­sage by 1975.”

Sound fa­mil­iar? In the 43 years since then, area leg­is­la­tors have in­tro­duced prop­erty tax re­form and fair fund­ing mea­sures to the same re­gional and short-lived en­thu­si­asm Stauf­fer de­scribes.

Hyl­ton wrote that the 1974 pro­posal was de­signed to elim­i­nate the lo­cal school real es­tate tax grad­u­ally over a pe­riod of 10 years. The tax was to be re­placed by in­creases in the per­sonal in­come tax, the Penn­syl­va­nia stock and fran­chise tax, and the cre­ation of a new tax on un­in­cor­po­rated busi­nesses. If passed, it was ex­pected to in­crease the state’s share of fund­ing from an av­er­age of 50 per­cent to an av­er­age of 80 per­cent over a 10year pe­riod.

Not only did the bill fail, the state’s share of ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing dropped from 50 per­cent to 35 per­cent in the in­ter­ven­ing years. Ac­cord­ing to Hyl­ton, other states, no­tably Ver­mont, have dra­mat­i­cally in­creased their share of school fund­ing dur­ing that time. In Ver­mont’s case, the im­pe­tus was a law­suit and court order, which may be the only way fund­ing re­form will hap­pen in Penn­syl­va­nia.

Which brings us to the law­suit cur­rently be­fore Com­mon­wealth Court brought against the state by the Pub­lic In­ter­est Law Cen­ter, six school dis­tricts in­clud­ing the Wil­liam Penn School District in Delaware County, seven par­ents, the Penn­syl­va­nia As­so­ci­a­tion of Ru­ral and Small Schools and the NAACP Penn­syl­va­nia State Con­fer­ence. The suit seeks a court order to com­pell the leg­is­la­ture to com­ply with the state con­sti­tu­tion and en­sure all stu­dents re­ceive ac­cess to a high-qual­ity pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion.

In Au­gust, the court re­jected claims by state Se­nate Pres­i­dent Joseph Scar­nati and House Speaker Michael Turzai that the adop­tion of a Fair Fund­ing for­mula made the is­sues in the case moot.

The Au­gust rul­ing was seen as a vic­tory by school fund­ing cham­pi­ons who are now op­ti­mistic that a trial date in the case may soon be set.

In the mean­time, leg­is­la­tors, ed­u­ca­tors and fam­i­lies from ar­eas af­fected most by the in­equities con­tinue to push for change – change that has been ad­vo­cated since the 1970s.

New school year, same prob­lem: Tax­pay­ers and schools alike are wait­ing for a leg­isla­tive so­lu­tion to en­sure that all stu­dents in Penn­syl­va­nia get a fair shot at ed­u­ca­tion.

If it takes a court order to ac­com­plish that goal, so be it. Forty-four years is a long time to wait.

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