As the June 30 deadline for passing a budget approaches in Pennsylvania, faith group leaders and advocates from around the state are holding events at the capitol in Harrisburg as part of the #MoralTakeover campaign to demand adequate funding for the state’s public schools.
Since June 20, hundreds of citizens have held rallies, fasted, and even broken into song inside the legislature to bring attention to the state’s education funding crisis.
Calling for a “moral budget that funds our schools fully and fairly,” the movement is asking the legislature and Governor Tom Wolf to add billions to the state budget to fund public schools and to distribute that money in an equitable way.
According to federal statistics, Pennsylvania has – by far – the most unequal spending by the state and local governments. Students in the poorest districts receive one-third less funding per pupil than students in the wealthiest districts. In Philadelphia, for example, the district spends approximately $13,000 per student: just a few miles away in Lower Merion, that figure is $23,000.
In Pennsylvania, this disparity is largely the result of how school districts are funded, which, for most schools, is through property taxes. Consequently, wealthy areas have well-funded schools and poorer areas, where property values are low, have poorly-funded schools.
In Chester Upland School District, for example, where the median household income for the county is $86,000, per-pupil expenditures are $35,000. In Cambria Heights School District, where the median household income for the county is half that of Chester County’s, per-pupil spending is $12,500.
In 2006, the legislature commissioned a study to look into funding levels for public schools. In 2007, the final report found that 95 percent of the state’s 500 school districts were underfunded by a total of $4.4 billion.
In 2011, Republican Governor Tom Corbett abolished the state’s school funding formula while also cutting back state subsidies. He justified the cuts, declaring, “I am here to say that education cannot be the only industry exempt from recession.” That year, 135 school districts raised their property taxes above the “normal legal limits” to compensate for the state’s austerity, according to reporter Daniel Denvir.
Pennsylvania is just one of three states in the country that does not have a school funding formula.
In 2014, Corbett’s administration instituted the “Ready to Learn” grant initiative that critics say benefited the state’s wealthiest and best-performing school districts.
Then in November, six school districts from around the state joined two statewide organizations, including the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference, to sue the governor, state lawmakers, and the state’s Department of Education. It claimed that the state’s meager funding violated its constitutional mandate to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.”
The case was rejected by the Commonwealth Court, but in May 2015, the plaintiffs appealed this decision and are now asking the state’s Supreme Court to hear the case.
The #MoralTakeover protestors’ call for equitable funding is buoyed by a report released just days before their campaign began. On June 18, a bipartisan panel recommended that the state adopt a new formula that weighs several factors in determining how to allocate state aid to school districts, including poverty, enrollment changes, the number of non-English speaking students, and a district’s ability to raise funds locally through property taxes.
However, the panel did not recommend an increase in funding – only a new mechanism to dictate hownew spending should be distributed. As state education reporter Kevin McCrory put it, “The proposed formula does not suggest how large the pie should be, only how it should be sliced.”
This is something that #MoralTakeover is attempting to change as well. On its website, the group points out that the state is currently funding education at 15 percent of what should be considered full funding – an indirect reference to the 2007 report’s $4.4 billion figure.
Perhaps nowhere is this insufficient funding more apparent than in Philadelphia, the eighth largest school district in the country.
Philadelphia’s education funding crisis stretches back decades. In 1993, the legislature decided to freeze the state’s then-extant funding formula and not increase expenditures based on enrollment changes at a time when the city’s K-12 student population increased.
As the city’s students began to perform badly on the state’s PSSA exams, the legislature took notice. In 1998, it passed a law granting the state the authority to takeover schools experiencing financial distress, and in 2000, it marked the Philadelphia School District as ripe for takeover if it did not improve its performance on the PSSA exams.
In December 2001, the state officially declared it had taken over the Philadelphia School District. It created a five-member panel called the School Reform Commission (SRC) to manage the district, with three of its members appointed by the governor.
While Philadelphia initially received a temporary boost in funding, it later experienced numerous financial difficulties under the SRC’s control. For example, prior to the takeover, the city implemented a 10-year tax abatement program to promote development – a policy that will have deprived the city of $240 million in tax revenue by 2016, including $144 million in school funding, according to one report.
The funding crisis reached its apex in 2013, when the SRC approved a “doomsday budget” that resulted in a 27 percent decline in staff for the city’s schools, including layoffs for nearly 6,000 workers. Many schools lost teachers, aides, nurses, and counselors.
Throughout the district, there was just one counselor for every 3,000 students. The American School Counselor Association suggests there should be one counselor for every 250 students.
The budget resulted not only in major cuts to staff and supplies and in deteriorating school conditions, but also possibly at least one death. In September 2013, a 12-year-old student died of an asthma attack. When she began having difficulty breathing, her teacher told her to “stay calm.” Her school only had a nurse on staff just two days a week.
In 2014, the state legislature responded to the city’s desperation by approving a $2-per pack tax on cigarettes to bring in $80 million annually to the district, but the additional revenue was only enough to help balance a “bare-bones” budget. District Superintendent William Hite and Mayor Michael Nutter both recognized after the measures went into effect that the funding was below the levels needed to provide an adequate education to the city’s students.
In November, Tom Wolf was elected as governor in large part due to his contrasts with Governor Corbett regarding education spending. During his gubernatorial campaign, Wolf supported adopting a 5 percent severance tax on the state’s booming natural gas industry to pay for billions of dollars in additional funding for education.
In February 2010, Gov. Corbett signed a pledge written by Grover Norquist to “oppose and veto any and all efforts to increase taxes.” Corbett resisted the implementation of a severance tax as energy companies flocked to the state to extract gas trapped in the massive Marcellus Shale.
In the ongoing budget talks, it is Wolf’s proposed severance tax – among other thorny issues — that is causing partisan gridlock. On June 30, the budget deadline, natural gas industry leaders intend to visit the capitol and lobby against the measure.
Republicans are proposing their own budget that excludes this tax.
With the stalemate in Harrisburg between a Democratic administration and a Republican legislature, it may be the special interests that determine the fate of the state’s education policy. Despite its firm commitment, it does not look like one that #MoralTakeover is poised to win.