Pennsylvania’s schools are struggling. It didn’t happen overnight, and it’s not the result of the budget impasse. Right now, Gov. Tom Wolf is fighting to make sure that all schools have the sustainable resources they need to provide a high quality education for our students, but the legislature continues to stand in the way.
Wolf has proposed historic investments that would put Pennsylvania’s schools on the right track after years of devastating cuts. But instead of working with the governor to help fix our schools, Republicans simply sent him another out of balance budget that would cut $95 million from education and grow the deficit.
For years, Pennsylvania’s schools have been underfunded. The previous administration cut $1 billion from public education, which resulted in teacher layoffs, program cuts and higher property taxes.
But in addition to the previous administrations cuts, schools’ finances have been structurally damaged by the lack of funding over the course of the past five years.
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Since 2010, there have been many credit downgrades to school districts. This is the result of a lack of commitment in state funding, and it means that it costs every district more money to borrow in order to finance important projects or secure loans for operations.
The number of schools considered distressed increased from two in 2010 to nine in 2015, including schools in financial watch status.
Furthermore, the state has been spending millions beyond typical appropriations just to keep the lights on at many schools. Since 2010-11, the commonwealth has had to make nearly $90 million in extraordinary payments to eight school districts.
Several school districts have faced closure over the past several years, only to be saved at the last minute with a solution that is unsustainable. Philadelphia schools would have closed without the enactment of dedicated sales and cigarette taxes and other schools have wobbled at the precipice for years.
With so many school districts facing such dire fiscal realities, we had hoped that there would be an effort to address the problem but the passage of House Bill 1460 was another clear indication that the legislature was not serious about funding our schools or addressing our deficit. Their budget failed to include $305 million in unpaid school construction reimbursements — costs the state simply cannot pay for because of its poor credit and unbalanced budget — which would lead to a net $95 million cut.
There are real consequences for years of gimmicks, underfunding and neglect.
And we have reached the end of the line.
There won’t be any more extraordinary payments. It’s going to be much harder for school districts to get loans.
Whether those consequences hit in the next few months or the next few years, school districts should be ready.
If we provide nothing more to school districts than the levels that would have been provided in the inadequate funding plan that did reach the governor’s desk in the end of December, there would be several school districts that may not be able to open this fall, and certainly would not be able to keep their doors open through the end of the school year. That’s the reality.
In challenging times, you can be fiscally responsible while still looking out for the people you serve. These values are not mutually exclusive; they are closely linked. Wolf knows firsthand how to make this balance work — throughout his career in the private sector, he had to make payroll each week while running a highly successful business. He understands it takes diligence and commitment to pay the bills on time.
It’s time for an honest budget that funds our schools, fixes our deficit, and finally addresses the fiscal challenges facing Pennsylvania and our schools.
It’s time for Republicans to finally work with the governor and fund our schools. We don’t need another gimmicky budget that cuts education funding like the one they passed in December. We need a real, sustainable solution that puts our schools on the right path.
That is what Wolf is fighting for.
Mark Nicastre is communications director for Gov. Tom Wolf.