Op-ED: Reevaluating how Pennsylvania funds education

One constant in Harrisburg is that no matter how much more money taxpayers spend on education every year, political activists will say it’s not enough.

Now this decades-old debate has been taken out of the hands of the people’s elected representatives and turned over to Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court, which is hearing arguments in a lawsuit filed over how public schools are funded.

The suit was originally filed in 2014 and dismissed at that time by Commonwealth Court. The State Supreme Court has since stepped in and told the Commonwealth Court to take up the case again. It moves forward while taxpayer-funded attorney fees unfortunately mount.

The frustrating part for taxpayers is that the case emanates from the myth that Pennsylvania schools, especially schools in low-income areas, are underfunded by the state.

Pennsylvania is seventh in the nation when it comes to education funding and spends more than $19,000 per student each year.  The national average is around $15,000.

According to Department of Education revenue numbers, state funding of public education in Pennsylvania has consistently increased for decades while enrollment continues to decline. Even accounting for inflation, education funding has gone up 68% since 1990 and 28.8% since 2012.

Plaintiffs in court argue that the system in unfair because some school districts receive more funding that others. They point to this as the sole reason for differences in academic performance. But these discrepancies in academic performance are less about the funding these schools receive and more about outside environmental factors. With the rise in broken homes in certain communities, more students are coming to school unprepared to learn. No amount of money is going to allow these schools to do what they cannot: fill in for disengaged or absent parents.

Perhaps before allocating more money into a broken system, we should take a deeper dive into how current funding is allocated.Pennsylvania’s average teacher salary of $70,000 is 11th in the nation and growing administrative staff only adds to staffing expenses. A 2012 EDChoice report revealed that from 1950 to 2009, student populations increased by 96%, while non-teaching staff increased by 702%. Over staffing and administrative bloat have become commonplace in Pennsylvania school districts.

There is also little to no state oversight over how schools spend their funds on new materials and technology. For example, a school in Lancaster was recently called out in court for purchasing Apple classroom products when Chromebook options were significantly cheaper. They couldn’t even explain in detail why the Apple products were superior to the more affordable alternatives.

An entrenched bureaucracy of growing administrative staff, powerful teacher unions and ideologically driven consultants fight reform of public schools at every turn. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It’s time to rethink how we fund education in Pennsylvania.

One way to bring true fairness in education, regardless of zip code, is to let families choose the best schools for their children. We can do this by strengthening Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC), which provide scholarships to lower- and middle-class K-12 students. These scholarships allow parents to have the choice of where they send their child to school.

We can pass Senate Bill 527, which would provide for an automatic escalator to these programs so arbitrary government caps on credits no longer deny thousands of children quality education each year.

The General Assembly should also pass Senate Bill 733 and SB 999. SB 733 would create the Education Opportunity Account Scholarship Program for Exceptional Students. SB 999 creates the same for Active-duty military families. EOAs allow parents to afford placing their child in the school of their choice. They cover expenses such as tuition, curriculum, tutoring, and internet access.

Recently, the Senate approved three bills that preserve school choice access for families and give more flexibility to students pursuing college degrees without incurring unnecessary debt.

Senate Bill 931 excludes pandemic stimulus payments from a household’s income when determining eligibility for the EITC and OSTC. This important legislation ensures children will not see their educational opportunities diminished because of one-time government handouts.

Senate Bill 932 revises the definition of “school-related fees” so students can use EITC and OSTC scholarships toward dual enrollment programs. This option gives Pennsylvania’s next generation of professionals the flexibility to pursue college degrees or access career training in high school while minimizing excessive student loan debt.

Increased competition will ultimately improve public schools as well. Those who innovate and adapt to meet the expectations of parents will thrive. Those who continue down the road of failed policies will lose students to non-public school alternatives.

Pennsylvania taxpayers are not dumb. They know that public schools receive more tax dollars than ever and that pouring even more into a broken system won’t help children or improve academic performance. Let’s change the system and give parents the power to choose their children’s education.

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