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Editorial: Pa.’s flipped priorities

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

It’s hard to overstate the deplorable conditions facing Philadelphia school children again this fall: another year of bare-bones education, overcrowded classrooms, and gaps in essential services like counseling and nursing.

But Philadelphia is by no means the only Pennsylvania district to see budgets slashed and the jobs of teachers, librarians, nurses, and counselors eliminated. Districts across the state are reeling from four years of austerity. Here’s how some were responding this summer:

Cutting activities: More than one-fourth of districts were expecting to cut extracurricular activities this year, according to a survey by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officers.

Laying off teachers: Allentown’s school district axed more than 60 teaching positions – on top of more than 400 cut in the three prior years.

Eliminating the arts: A district near Scranton announced it can no longer afford music instruction for students through 2nd grade.

Something is seriously wrong with this picture. Pennsylvania is not a poor state and is situated in one of the richest countries in the world. But many districts can’t provide our children with school personnel we once took for granted. Not to mention books, technology – and in some cases, soap and toilet paper.

The Corbett administration would like us to believe that the problem in Philadelphia is that teachers haven’t sacrificed financially. But teachers deserve to be adequately compensated for their vital work and are right to resist a race to the bottom in education spending.

The real reason things have gotten so bad is that Harrisburg has been committed to preserving corporate tax breaks rather than helping raise revenues for schoolchildren in low-income districts. Corbett and the legislature have also diverted millions of public dollars to private schools through tax credits and maintained a sweetheart deal for funding cyber charters, many of which are run for profit.

And when revenues proved inadequate, the state’s poorest districts were hardest hit by aid cuts – Philadelphia lost more than $1,300 per student in 2011. State officials dismantled a funding formula that was driving aid to the districts where the need is greatest and are just starting to rethink that mistake. Districts like Lower Merion and Radnor that far outspend poorer nearby communities continue to get millions in state aid that could help struggling districts reach basic staffing levels.

A new funding formula that responds to student needs and ensures adequacy in every community would be a good start. A lawsuit is imminent and may force the state’s hand.

But this situation is likely to persist as long as schools are primarily funded through local property taxes. America accepts that people with means can move wherever they want, and there is no shared obligation to fund the schools of children who can’t afford to live there. So even within the same county, there are often obscene inequities in resources – Radnor Township raises $9,000 more per pupil than nearby Upper Darby.

That’s not just a Pennsylvania problem. The United States is unusual among industrialized countries in having it backward: We spend the fewest education dollars on the neediest students. If we want to spend tax dollars wisely and get results, we need to flip that script.

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