Capitol

File photo shows the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, where lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf will negotiate over the 2021 budget.

THE ISSUE

“Gov. Tom Wolf asked lawmakers Wednesday to raise income taxes on higher earners and give public schools a massive boost in aid, as state government faces a gaping deficit and uncertainty over how much more pandemic relief the federal government will send,” The Associated Press reported, describing the seventh-year Democratic governor’s proposed budget. “No matter how great a parent you are, if your local school system lacks the resources it needs to provide your kids with a quality education, that’s a barrier to giving them a better life,” Wolf said in his budget address of the urgency for increasing and fairly distributing public education funding.

Wolf’s proposed path is problematic, but his end goal is absolutely necessary.

The governor is correct in moving boldly to address long-term inequities in how Pennsylvania funds its public schools. The need is even more urgent than it was a year ago, as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problems faced by school districts that simply don’t have the resources to educate children safely and satisfactorily.

But we’re hesitant to fully endorse the governor’s specific proposal to raise state income taxes amid a still-ongoing health crisis.

An approach that potentially stymies job growth and inhibits the eventual economic recovery doesn’t seem prudent. But the alternative is that school districts, faced with challenges imposed by the pandemic, will have to raise property taxes for homeowners. Unless Republican lawmakers have another idea.

What cannot be up for debate is the need to deal aggressively with Pennsylvania’s public education crisis this year. There can be no more delay.

Leaders of both parties must collaborate and rise to this challenge. If Wolf’s plan isn’t palatable to Republicans, then the party in control of the General Assembly should offer aggressive ideas of its own that keep children from being left behind.

The big funding boost Wolf is proposing for education is appropriate and necessary. The governor is “calling for a historic, $1.35 billion, or 21.6%, increase in basic education funding,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Alex Geli wrote. “Wolf is also asking for all basic education funding to flow through the state’s fair funding formula that presently is used for new money only. That translates to a $59.5 million, or 32%, boost for Lancaster County schools.”

State lawmakers have dragged their feet on pushing all basic education funding through the fair funding formula, which was enacted in 2016.

We’ve been calling for full use of the formula since 2018. Advocates for historically underfunded public schools have been rightly doing so since the bipartisan funding formula was passed. 

This isn’t just about the School District of Lancaster and other urban school districts in Pennsylvania. As Geli notes, one of the biggest beneficiaries of Wolf’s proposal would be Conestoga Valley School District, which is “long regarded as one of the most inequitably funded school districts in the state” and would see a 221% increase in state funding.

“I would not consider this a ‘boost,’ but rather a long-overdue equitable distribution of state funding,” Conestoga Valley Superintendent Dave Zuilkoski told Geli in an email.

We agree with that assessment.

Indeed, fair funding is long overdue. In the world of COVID-19 and remote learning, at-risk children have faced steeper challenges. The struggles of school boards to balance budgets have multiplied.

“Absent new revenues, we will need to make significant programming cuts,” Lancaster Superintendent Damaris Rau told Geli. “Additional, sustainable, state funding will help us close this deficit and allow us to make long-term investments in children, particularly through programs designed to close the widening academic gaps resulting from this pandemic.”

As the governor notes, this is about building a better future for Pennsylvania. What could be more important?

“High-quality education is the ticket to greater opportunity for our children,” Wolf said in Wednesday’s address. “Without it, how can we hope that our kids will lead better lives than we did? .... If it’s not accessible to everyone, how will our kids be able to build a better Pennsylvania than the one we leave them?”

But the reality — as it has been for years in Harrisburg — is that Wolf’s budget proposal is essentially “dead on arrival” with the Republican-controlled Legislature, which has a terrible record of passing actual legislation but a strong record of naysaying and complaining.

And we view the governor’s proposal as having another problem regarding revenue generation. It would legalize recreational marijuana — which we oppose — and add the associated tax revenue to its projections.

In general, Wolf’s revenue-producing proposals, which also include the good idea of taxing natural gas extraction, haven’t gained traction in previous years, and we don’t expect they will this year, either, as rancor between state Democrats and Republicans continues to run sky-high.

But none of this means that fair funding for schools can be ignored and punted to another year. Too much is at stake.

Republican state Sen. Scott Martin of Martic Township was recently appointed chair of the Senate Education Committee, and we were somewhat encouraged by this portion of his response to Wolf’s proposal:

“I am hopeful that we can find a way to provide some boost to education spending, and I am committed to ensuring schools have the resources they need to educate our young people,” Martin stated. “However, the money simply isn’t there to support the kind of funding increase the governor is advocating.”

Republican lawmakers must do their job and find the money. In a way, Martin has more influence in Harrisburg than Wolf during the budget negotiations that will stretch over the upcoming months.

There is no greater priority than public education, and so we encourage the state senator and his fellow Republicans to summon the courage and creativity to finally make 100% fair funding a reality. And to provide significantly more funding so that school districts, trying to overcome the challenges of the pandemic, don’t have to raise property taxes on those who can least afford a greater financial burden.

Our lawmakers must find a meaningful way to fairly, equitably and adequately fund education in the commonwealth, or risk condemning the next generation of Pennsylvanians to being inadequately prepared for citizenship in the 21st-century world and workplace.

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