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Despite deficit, Pennsylvania debates higher school spending

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania is mired in a recession and facing painful service cuts, but Gov. Ed Rendell nonetheless has many allies supporting his push for a third year in a row of major increases in the state’s subsidy to its neediest school districts.

Susan Gobreski, director of Education Voters Pennsylvania, said her organization’s polling shows that “there’s broad support for this, even in tough times – and especially in tough times. People understand that educating our children is investing in the future.”

Rendell wants a $354 million increase in the state’s basic education subsidy, despite the large shortfall in state coffers. If he can win legislative support for continuing to narrow the “adequacy gap” for underfunded districts, it will translate into about a $90 million boost for Philadelphia (see Where the money would go in Philadelphia)

The state House has approved the governor’s spending plan, but the Republican-led Senate can block it. It did that for months last year, ultimately forcing a scaling back of spending. Education advocates are gearing up for another bitter fight, which may not be resolved by the state’s June 30 deadline for budget adoption.

“There’s political pressure to try to make cuts,” Gobreski said. “Given the Tea Party movement, that’s the safe thing to do.” Senate Republicans have characterized the Rendell budget as a “tax and spend” plan. Gobreski urged education advocates to counter that through calls to legislators.

Rendell hopes to fund the increased education spending and his $29 billion overall budget in part through new revenue strategies, including closing corporate tax loopholes and implementing a tax on smokeless tobacco – Pennsylvania is the only state without one.

The governor also is advocating a tax on natural gas producers in the state who are part of a rush to tap into Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale.

According to Sharon Ward of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, this is the only major gas-producing state that isn’t taxing production.

Ward said “a balanced approach” to this year’s budget negotiations would include these new revenue measures along with spending reductions. “Pennsylvania has already made large cuts in its budget,” Ward noted.

Gobreski added, “It’s jaw-droppingly astonishing that we’re even considering continuing corporate loopholes and taking more money away from kids.”

Despite uncertainty about the outcome of Harrisburg’s budget debate, the District has based its spending plan on the governor’s projections.

“To budget less would be a signal that the District does not need, cannot use well, does not expect to receive and does not support what the governor has proposed,” said Chief Business Officer Michael Masch.

But he added, “The Philadelphia School District is well aware that no level of state funding is guaranteed until it has been included in an enacted budget.”

While the release of the School District’s budget this year has so far drawn little public concern, looming ahead is a double-whammy. A surge in pension costs of more than $150 million over the next three years is coupled with the likelihood that this is the last year the District will get a quarter of a billion dollars of federal stimulus funds for education.

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