The Betrayal of Public Schools by the Pennsylvania Legislature

Article Published in the Delaware County Daily Times

By Joseph Batory, Times Guest Columnist

09/15/15

Pennsylvania’s 253-member General Assembly is the second-largest state Legislature in the nation and the largest full-time state Legislature in the USA. It is also America’s costliest state Legislature per capita. But in spite of its size and its legislative salaries (base pay of $85,356 + $157 per diem for members), the Pennsylvania Legislature continues to be woefully ineffective.

If an ordinary citizen ignored financial obligations and job responsibilities, he or she might be in big trouble. Yet incredibly, Pennsylvania is now several months beyond the constitutional deadline for budget adoption. It has been a summer when too many legislators seemed to be prioritizing politics rather than finalizing a 2015-2016 budget for Pennsylvania. And it is financially irresponsible and unfair that Pennsylvania’s school districts have obeyed the legal deadline for budget adoption by July 1 without knowing what amounts of funding the state will provide. This is a recipe for disaster, government at its worst.

NB—The Legislature (Republican majority) did put forward a budget in late June (vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf) which would have added even more to the State’s current multi-billion.

Another key factor that caused the Wolf veto is that too many legislators are refusing to face the reality that Pennsylvania’s constitution mandates that the state “thoroughly and efficiently support public education.”

Pennsylvania’s share of public education funding has been consistently declining from a 50 percent overall state share in the late 1970s to a 35 percent share today. This dramatic reduction of public education funding by the state has shifted more and more costs of public education to the local level which has created both higher and higher property taxes and cutbacks to school programs.

The sad legacy of the past four years of Harrisburg government is many millions of dollars in cuts to basic education. Across Pennsylvania’s public schools, 20,000 educators lost their jobs, many curricular programs were reduced, and larger class sizes for pupils proliferated.

Added to this, the gap of educational expenditures between the poorest and wealthiest schools in the commonwealth has now grown deeper than ever before. Pennsylvania now has the largest spending difference between its rich and poor school districts of any state in the USA.

In addition to this, the state has for many years shortchanged its required annual payment share to the pension funds for state workers and teachers. Many Harrisburg politicians pontificate that there is no more tax money for schools and other state obligations. However, Pennsylvania remains as the only major gas-producing state without an extraction tax. And in budget talks over the last few months, lawmakers in leadership positions repeatedly refused to consider a severance tax of any kind on Shale gas.

All of this brings into serious question the relationships of Pennsylvania elected officials with the Marcellus Shale lobby.

Contrary to the doomsday predictions of the Shale gas lobby, a number of researchers have found that a well-designed severance tax would have very little effect on either Shale gas profits or the industry’s desire to keep operations and jobs in Pennsylvania.

The state’s Independent Fiscal Office has projected that the Shale gas severance tax could bring in vast amounts of revenue — as much as $1.86 billion per year by 2020 — while the gas industry in Pennsylvania would continue its growth without any significant loss of revenue or any need to abandon their profits and leave Pennsylvania.

All of this adds up to a sad summary of Pennsylvania government: A betrayal of constitutional responsibilities by elected officials and a lack of commitment to the common good of the state’s school children and all citizens of the commonwealth.

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Joseph Batory is a former superintendent of schools in Upper Darby and author of numerous articles on politics and education.

 

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