The Boyertown Area Times
Getting to fair funding is tall task
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.