The Boyertown Area Times

Getting to fair funding is tall task

- Will Wood is a veteran, small business owner, and half decent runner. He lives, works, and writes in West Chester.

Everyone wants all Pennsylvan­ians to have access to a good education. Well, maybe not the Defund the Schools crowd who have been masqueradi­ng as school choice advocates. They don’t really care who has access to a good education, so long as it’s their kids.

But the overwhelmi­ng majority of Pennsylvan­ians support the idea that public schools are important, and increasing attention is being given to the wild disparity in school funding and educationa­l outcomes across the state. The recent ruling by the Commonweal­th Court holding that the current system is unconstitu­tional was a major victory for the plaintiffs and for future students, and an eye-opener for many Pennsylvan­ians who may not have realized the scale of the problem.

Now the really hard work begins.

There is no doubt that the investment in education is important. Children who receive better education become more productive adults. It is a moral imperative that a country that can afford to provide a solid education to all of its citizens do so, but it makes good business sense, too. The costs associated with adult poverty are incredibly steep compared to the increases that would be required to level educationa­l opportunit­ies.

To be clear: “Level” does not mean we should lower performanc­e at good districts. Instead, we should be working to raise all districts to the same level as our best. The current average cost of educating a student at a public school in Pennsylvan­ia is around $20,000 per year and the good news is that the average cost per student in many of our region’s top school districts — which are among the top statewide — is also around $20,000. This means that a top-shelf education can be provided for not much more than we are already spending, on average, in Pennsylvan­ia.

Part of the problem lies in finding a way to get that level of funding to each district. The distributi­on of funding from the state would never be sufficient to overcome the discrepanc­ies created by school boards relying heavily on locally collected property taxes, even if the fair funding formula had worked as it should. In seeing how large the gap is from the least well-funded districts in the state to the best, calling it a “fair funding formula” seems intentiona­lly ironic.

But equalizing annual budgets is only part of the problem. The other large obstacle to ensuring a level playing field among the state’s public schools is that many districts have been so underfunde­d for so long that the facilities, materials, and curricula are functional­ly obsolete. Moreover, we are facing a teacher shortage stemming from long undervalui­ng our educators.

In order to overcome these obstacles, education costs will have to rise substantia­lly over the next few years. There is little point in finding a way to make funding equitable if some schools are going to start with a massive disadvanta­ge and teachers are not going to be available.

The big wrinkle is going to be in how we go about funding education fairly.

At the moment, many in longstandi­ng underfunde­d districts are opposed to the current system of property taxes (and for opposite reasons, so are the Defund the Schools crowd). But increasing the state sales tax to cover new costs and also make up for the loss of property taxes would hurt low-income earners disproport­ionately.

Likewise, raising the state’s flat income tax rate would hurt low-income households most. While a progressiv­e income tax — the kind favored by Republican­s going back to Teddy Roosevelt — would go a long way towards alleviatin­g the regressive nature of Pennsylvan­ia’s income tax structure, getting that through our legislatur­e along with an education funding reform seems like an impossible lift.

Property taxes are a good way to get stakeholde­rs in Pennsylvan­ia to pick up some of the tab. A well-educated populace benefits property owners by providing customers to the business that occupy properties, employees for those businesses, apartment renters, and future homebuyers.

While Judge Cohn Jubelirer directed the General Assembly to create a new system that ensures that all students receive a quality education, there is no clear path forward. With a narrowly divided House, a Republican Senate, and a Democrat Governor, we need Harrisburg to approach this with open minds and they need to keep all the options on the table.

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