New school year, same old funding problem
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 then-State 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.