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Pennsylvania’s “Experiment” Proves What Everyone Knows: Money Matters

The Public Interest Law Center, a Philadelphia-based organization that advocates for social justice, just completed a study of school funding in Pennsylvania that illustrates the consequences of cuts in State funding and the results were devastating to districts serving poverty stricken children. The overview section of the study describes the impact of the $800,000,000 in cumulative budget cuts made since 2011, cuts enacted by the conservative legislators and supported by then Governor Pat Toomey:

The impact from that cut was as foreseeable as it was widespread: Districts eliminated 27,000 jobs and class sizes increased, while test scores and the percentage of high school graduates enrolling in college immediately declined. Moreover, those cuts continue to reverberate five years later, with most districts—particularly the poorest districts—still with less state funding than before the cuts.

State funds, like Federal funds, are supposed to mitigate the inability of property poor districts to raise sufficient revenues to operate schools that can provide an equal opportunity for success for the children who reside in the communities and neighborhoods they serve. When State funds are cut, then, the poorest districts suffer the most because they are more reliant on State funds. Moreover, cuts to affluent districts are easier to mitigate because those districts can increase local property taxes or even consider implementing more fees for extra-curricular activities… and residents of affluent communities understand that the value of their homes is dependent on the quality of their schools and they will reluctantly dig deeper into their pockets to retain the programs in their school district that make the purchase of a home an attractive proposition.

Conservative legislators in Pennsylvania, though, demonize public education spending, and especially the unions that push teachers salaries and benefits. They believed that “throwing money at the problem” was not solving the problem and they diverted increasing levels of funding toward for-profit charter schools while cutting funds of public education. And here’s what they learned: taking money away from the problem made it worse.

And now they are learning something else: when the baseline funding is reduced, recovering lost ground is extremely difficult. For the past several months the newly elected Governor, Tom Wolfe, has been at an impasse with the legislature. He wants to restore $500,000,000 of the cuts made to public schools to get most of them back to where they were five years ago and is running into a wall. The Public Interest Law Center, in an effort to underscore the fact that this new money was not going to be “wasted” and to illustrate how devastating the cuts were to public schools, analyzed the plans school districts submitted to the State in order to secure the funds the Governor requested. They summarized the requests on several charts and found that “…districts planned spending funds on basic, integral services such as early childhood programs, books up to date with state standards, and smaller class sizes.” When they reviewed the more detailed explanations for how funds would be used, they found “…districts from every corner of the state in distress, desperate to provide students with basic educational resources.”

The white paper prepared by the Public Interest Law Center concluded with this final lesson the Pennsylvania legislature and— hopefully– the Pennsylvania taxpayers learned:

 Pennsylvania, according to a federal study, has the most inequitable system of education funding in the United States, with a child’s education vastly different depending solely on what side of a school district border he or she was born. Not only is that system inequitable, but it is grossly inadequate, leaving school districts of all shapes and sizes unable to provide children with the resources they need to become productive members of society.

In a fair and just democracy taxpayers would be appalled to reside in such a state. Here’s hoping that in 2016 the voters will change the face of the legislature and help the children born into poverty by funding their schools in a fair and equitable fashion.

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