Panther Valley is a relatively small school district serving several equally small boroughs in Carbon County, Pennsylvania. The total number of students sits under 2,000 from a population of mixed economic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds. It can be viewed as a typical example of Pennsylvania public schools, and, according to comments made by Superintendent Dennis Kergick, that is the problem.
“Cost services for special education (will be) approximately $6 million this year,” Kergick said when discussing the major cost drivers for the district. “Next on the list is cyber schools…this expense is about $1.6 million projected for 19-20…The expenses rise every year and our revenue from the state is insufficient to keep up with the costs.” He also points out that, to make up the difference in costs, the district has needed to continuously raise taxes on households in the area. The issue has become so problematic that, in 2014, the school district joined five others in suing the state over a lack of funding. That court case looks to officially begin in 2020.
Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common experience in the Commonwealth’s public schools. Of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts, 473 are underfunded. Meanwhile, private schools and their backers have long received support from the state in the form of incredibly generous tax incentives. By and large, private schools do not suffer from problems of underfunding, despite serving smaller communities than public institutions.
State funding for public schools in Pennsylvania has long been the source of staggering inequality. In a 2015 study by the Washington Post, it was found that the gap in per-student funding between the most affluent school districts and the poorest was nearly 33 percent. That means that, while Bryn Athyn district in Montgomery county spent an average of $26,675 per student, Mount Carmel district could only spend $8,600. Even school districts closer to the middle, such as Panther Valley, Wilkes-Barre, and Lancaster are only able to spend from $9,000 to $11,000 per student.
What can this gap in funding look like? According to Education Next, in 2013, the Philadelphia school district was nearly forced to delay the start of school due to lack of staff. Budget cuts from the previous years had left many schools in the district unable to hire counselors, secretaries, or teachers for many of the artistic and extracurricular programs. It was only through an emergency grant and public fundraising efforts that enough staff and supplies could be gathered to provide an adequate education environment.
Fixing these issues has been part of Governor Tom Wolf’s agenda since his election, along with multiple members of the Pennsylvania state legislature. In 2016, the fair funding formula was created to adjust how funding would be distributed. It takes into account various factors that could affect a district’s need for aid, including median income of the area, English and non-English speaking students, and the ability of the district to generate tax revenue locally. However, this formula has only been applied to money added to the budget after 2016, which means that nearly 90 percent of the over six and a half-billion-dollar budget is still divided in ways which keep impoverished districts from educating and protecting their students.
Meanwhile, private schools in Pennsylvania enjoy a startling amount of financial support from the state. The Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) is a program that allows businesses and individuals who donate to private school scholarships or improvement programs for public schools to then deduct up to 90 percent of that amount from their state taxes. This is one of the most generous of such programs in the United States and is meant to encourage groups to support lower-income families trying to get into private schools.
This plan only works, however, if lower-class families are the ones receiving these benefits, which new information says may not always be the case. Ten years ago, a review found that the average household income of those who benefited from the program was $29,000, while a family of four can currently earn up to $121,000 and still qualify for an EITC scholarship. This is over $50,000 higher than Pennsylvania’s average household income, so upper middle class and upper-class families are just as eligible for aid as lower-class households. Critics fear many people who were already meaning to attend private schools are receiving scholarships, meaning the state would be subsidizing the tuition of students who could already easily afford it at the expense of tax dollars.
Another issue with private school funding in the Commonwealth is who is benefiting from EITC tax credits. A PA Spotlight report revealed that funding for several of these programs comes from the Commonwealth Kids LLC, a Koch-funded organization. Because of the organization’s classification as an LLC, it’s able to give millions back in tax write-offs to donors. This, in turn, transforms private schools from centers of learning to quick profit machines for millionaire and billionaire backers. Additionally, another Koch-backed group, the Commonwealth Foundation, have been pushing policies to direct more state money into private education and their own pockets.
The EITC program has been seen as controversial by many PA state politicians, including Governor Wolf. Early in the summer, Wolf promised to veto any attempt to increase the program’s budget. Although the original $100 million increase was dismissed, he ultimately allowed a $25 million increase with the latest state budget, which was approved on June 28.
Why Public School Matters
The benefits of widely available public education have been proven time and time again. Not only do people learn a background in a wide array of topics, but school helps improve decision-making skills. This leads to better choices later in life when considering career moves, health decisions, and potential criminal behavior. These effects can ripple out to society at large. A study on Pennsylvania’s investments in education pointed out that those who completed high school have much greater employment rates than high school dropouts since the expansion of public education in the ’50s. Higher education levels also coincided with more job security during major recessions. Steady employment among the populace means more tax revenue for the state and lower medical costs and dependence on government support programs at every point in life. Not only does this save the state money, but higher education rates also drive down crime rates and increase participation in civic programs at the local, state, and national levels.
Recently, the funding mismanagement has been receiving greater attention at every level. The new budget includes a $160 million boost to the general education fund. Public groups have also been pushing for better funding and money management in public schools. Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild have rallied with Representative Chris Rabb and House Bill 961. The bill calls for 100% of the state’s education budget to be run through the fair funding formula.