Restore state funding to Pennsylvania’s schools

Celebrating its 100th year as a branch in 2016, the American Association of University Women State College is part of a nationwide network of almost 1,000 branches that are dedicated to advancing equity for women and girls. AAUW supports a strong system of public education, provided through adequate and equitable funding. Learn more about us at www.aauwstatecollege.org.

It was a relief to see the state’s budget pass the House of Representatives in July. At first glance, K-12 education appears to have fared well with an additional $200 million in state funding. But the outlook for education isn’t quite as rosy as it may appear. Mandated expenses including pensions, health benefits, special education and charter school payments are increasing at rates that far exceed the additional $200 million increase. School districts across the state, unable to keep pace with these increases, have resorted to reducing or eliminating programming or raising taxes.

Pennsylvania’s school districts have lost approximately 20,000 jobs in an attempt to keep pace with these mandated expenses. A report by Temple University’s Center on Regional Politics found that by 2018, “60 percent of the districts in the state will face severe and prolonged program and staff reductions to balance their budgets.” Smaller districts have reported increases in both elementary and secondary class sizes, making it challenging, at best, to deliver adequate attention to the students most in need.

Over the past five years, the combination of a slowing economy and state and federal education cuts is widening the gap between mandated expenses and funding. According to Education Voters of PA, Pennsylvania ranked 44th in the nation in the percentage share of education costs covered by the state. (Pennsylvania provides 37 percent of total school spending as compared with the national average of 45 percent.)

Lack of funding eventually results in diminished educational achievement and increased high school dropout rates. If we continue on this path, Pennsylvania’s young adults will find it increasingly difficult to compete for jobs and college admission against a national pool, let alone an international one. Pennsylvania will struggle to attract and retain businesses with a workforce that may be less educated than that of other states. The true cost of a lowered investment in K-12 education affects us all.

Logically, we know that there are only so many cuts that a school district can reasonably make before the local tax rate must be increased. While some districts, including State College, already have sought relief through increases in property taxes, close to 80 percent of the state’s school districts plan to increase property taxes in the near future. Moreover, school districts with smaller tax bases may be forced to tax at higher rates than others.

While externally driven and state-mandated costs have increased, the percentage of K-12 funding provided by state revenue has decreased by 2 percent over the past five years, while local taxpayer revenue has increased by 2 percent. (PASA-PASBO Report of School District Budgets, June 2015) Clearly, the burden of funding our schools has been slowly shifting to local taxpayers. Yet, many local communities simply do not have the capacity to absorb increases.

Pennsylvania’s lack of adequate state funding and heavy reliance on local taxes to fund schools is particularly impactful on low wealth districts that are mostly rural and urban. These districts lack the up-to-date books, science labs and staff for their students to meet the academic standards set by state and federal governments.

The passage of the Fair Funding Formula that works to restore equity in funding across the commonwealth along with the $200 million increase in funding were critical first steps. We credit state government and our legislators for their action.

However, using the Pennsylvania Basic Education Funding Commission formula, the Public Interest Law Center found that the minimum increase in state funding needed is $3.2 billion.

Urge your local legislators to support fair and adequate school funding that truly results in a “thorough and efficient system of public education” for every child as guaranteed by the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Mary Dupuis and Cynthia Hall are members of the Education Policy Committee of the AAUW State College Branch.