“The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”
—Article III, Section 14, Pennsylvania Constitution
The premise sounds so simple. Yet, if you ask 10 legislators what it means, you will get a dozen opinions. If you are a school director, none of those may be exactly what you want to hear. Some of them may be “close.” That’s the way it’s been for my three terms as an elected school director in Centennial School District.
Let’s begin with an indisputable fact. Over the last 50 years, the commonwealth’s share of funding for the cost of providing a free and appropriate public education to its children has decreased from more than half to roughly one-third. Because of funding inequities, the portion for Bucks and Montgomery counties is collectively more like one-fifth.
For a third year in a row we sit with a budget that falls short of money to fund it. Effectively, the public education portion of the budget is level-funded, as the General Assembly never addressed “restoring” funds that were cut in the past.
Some of the swing is from direct cuts to funding. A larger factor is the increasing financial burden that comes with the unfunded mandates passed by the General Assembly over the same period of time. It’s kind of like having a boarder in your home tell you what to keep in your refrigerator without contributing to the cost.
Here’s the elephant in both legislative chambers: Of the approximately $6 billion appropriated for public education, more than $1 billion is wasted and/or misdirected. If school boards had the ability to reallocate how those funds were spent, less money would be needed. As a consequence, because less money would be needed, the state’s percentage contribution would rise (on paper), and taxes for our homeowners would remain level.
What results is “trickle-down taxation,” made necessary when the Legislature fails to provide adequate funding for “a thorough and efficient system of public education” across the state. Each year, elected school directors are in the trenches, faced with raising taxes on their neighbors (many on fixed incomes) or cutting programs and services in their district.
By enacting what are arguably the worst charter school laws in the nation (it must be true because comedian and talk-show host John Oliver quoted our own auditor general), our General Assembly cast a die it will not back away from no matter how much harm is done.
Each year, we pay privately operated charter schools $300 million for special-education services, over and above what they spend without accountability. We unjustly enrich the owners of cybercharter schools whom we are forced to pay triple the cost of providing the same services within the district umbrella. Where you have a cybercharter school claiming to provide special-education services, the numbers go off the chart. State Rep. Stephen McCarter, D-154, Glenside, tried a “cybertuition” amendment. It got hacked.
On top of that, consider the time and money wasted on valueless standardized tests that are invalid for the high-stakes purposes for which they purport to exist. To be fair, at this writing, state Sens. Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester County, and John Eichelberger, R-Blair County, have started the ball rolling to eliminate this issue. This would save $750 million annually.
Add in pension payments, prevailing wage and hold harmless (state Rep. Scott Petri, R-178, Richboro, often reminds us that Pennsylvania has the highest grandfathered debt of any state and it never goes away) and you will see the opportunity for balancing our budget through sensible savings.
Unfortunately, it does not work that way. I watched state Rep. Bernie O’Neill, R-29, Warminster, and Sen. Patrick Browne, R-Lehigh County, craft a special-education funding plan that made so much sense, I could not believe how it was banished by the Legislature. We would be more than $1 billion ahead by now.
Legislators and school directors are elected by the same constituents to serve their communities. Many of us are able to work well together, while others are so heavily influenced by special-interest groups they lose their sense of legitimacy.
Next year’s election cycle is already shaping up to be interesting. I’m going to prepare by watching those dollars. The time has come to “follow the money” by looking at who accepts funds and how they vote.
Remember, public education is about serving children and student achievement. Serving “special interests” is not compatible with putting our money where their mouth is. Perhaps it is time for a change — if not in legislation and/or funding, then in our leaders.
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Mark B. Miller is an elected school director in Centennial School District, a director of the Network for Public Education (www.networkforpubliceducation.org) and a former president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.