The budget process for next year is well underway in Harrisburg and spending on education is on a track to increase.
But advocates say that under current proposals the state will make but a small dent in the perennial quests to make sure all students have what they need, to reduce inequities between low-income and well-off districts, and to increase the overall state share of education spending.
“Clearly the budget proposal this year is not very ambitious in terms of extra money for K-12,” said Ron Cowell, executive director of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, and a former Democratic legislator.
However, he said, it is “realistic,” given that the state faces a structural deficit of nearly $3 billion and that Republicans continue to oppose raising taxes. The legislative leadership also prefers measures that promote school choice over sending windfalls of additional money to traditional school districts.
Gov. Wolf proposed an additional $100 million for basic education, $25 million for special education, and $75 million for pre-K. In late March, the House passed a budget that keeps the increases for basic and special education, but reduces the additional pre-K investment to $25 million.
At the same time, the House passed a bill sponsored by Speaker Mike Turzai that will increase two tax credit programs that funnel scholarship money to families so they can send their children to private and parochial schools. The Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) allow corporations to donate to scholarships or educational organizations in lieu of paying taxes. They can take a credit for 75 percent of taxes owed and can take a deduction for the difference.
Under Turzai’s bill, the total amount of taxes that can be used this way in a given year would increase from $175 million to $250 million.
Many education advocates, including Cowell, think that instead of this increase there should be $75 million more, at least, sent to school districts.
“A lot of observers are wondering how the legislature can be giving serious consideration to more tax credits that reduce revenue to the state at a time when one of the major problems is insufficient revenues” to fulfill the constitutional mandate of a “thorough and efficient” education for all children, said Cowell.
“It’s a numbers question — can you afford to give up more money when you don’t have enough to begin with?”
He pointed out that, despite increases of more than $640 million in education spending since Democrat Tom Wolf became governor, the state “has not fully restored the cuts made from 2011 while we have the worst inequity gap in the country.” Wolf’s predecessor, Tom Corbett, made decisions that cut about a billion dollars in state and federal aid from school districts. In Philadelphia, which absorbed about a quarter of these cuts, schools lost school nurses and counselors, while class size went up, among other drastic changes.
And studies have shown that Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom five in the percentage of education dollars that come from state rather than local coffers, and has the largest spending gaps between rich and poor districts of any state.
Dealing with the inequities
When Wolf took office in 2015, he proposed an ambitious tax overhaul and huge increases in education spending. But while he touts rising investment in education as his proudest achievement so far, his original aspirations have been significantly scaled back.
Last year, the legislature did a new predictable state funding formula based on enrollment and student need, but applied it only to new education dollars, not to the entire pot. So the inequities will not be corrected any time in the near future. And lawmakers specifically prohibited the committee that devised the formula from determining how much money was actually needed by districts to adequately educate all children.
Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Philadelphia Democrat, said that his caucus wants to find ways to accelerate the impact of the new funding formula and said that this new budget, if adopted, would at least restore the cuts of the Corbett years.
“We had four years from hell in terms of basic education funds under Corbett, and at least we now have a governor who has fought for getting those dollars back in,” he said. “Now, the problem is, how do we aggressively deal with the inequity.”
He said the Democrats would attempt to come up with a proposal in the next few weeks.
“I think it’s got to be done with new funding and targeting dollars on top of what is being proposed,” he said. “I think we’ve got to advocate for something this year.”
Republican leadership — in line with their national counterparts and new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — has instead promoted charter schools and choice as the way to insure children’s futures by allowing them to “escape failing schools.”
EITC is the second oldest tax-credit scholarship program in the country, adopted after the legislature repeatedly failed to pass a school voucher program under Gov. Tom Ridge. A study by an organization called EdChoice concluded that the program has saved hundreds of millions in taxpayer money because students left public schools to take advantage of the scholarships.
EdChoice was originally the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Economist Milton Friedman was the godfather of school choice and school vouchers. Opponents of the scholarship program discount those findings, pointing out the source.
They also argue that tax money should not go to private and parochial schools. They note that while the program was promoted promoting choice for poor families with bad options, families already sending their students to private and parochial schools are eligible and that the income caps are high — more than $100,000 for a family with two children. The legislation also limits data collection on who is benefiting from the scholarships and whether children who use them are doing better.
Turzai spokesman Steve Miskin discounted all these criticisms.
“We’ve got to remember, these are tax credits,” he said. “What we know is that kids are trapped in failing schools for various reasons, thousands upon thousands of parents made the choice to move out of them,” Miskin said.
Some receiving the scholarships never attended public school at all, a huge complaint of the opponents of the program if the goal is to provide better opportunities to students in failing schools. But It would be unfair, Miskin said, to “penalize a family scrimping and saving and sacrificing by denying scholarships to existing students.”
He pointed out that the OSTC program, smaller and newer than EITC, is specifically targeted to areas where the local public school is low-performing.
Miskin praised Superintendent William Hite as “the best Philadelphia superintendent in my lifetime. But he is hampered by his bosses and the politicians. Instead of trying to improve things, they are fighting for the status quo. The status quo needs to be ripped apart.”