With the line-item veto of $4 billion in education subsidies from the state’s budget, Governor Ed Rendell has forced the legislature to revisit the issue of public education.
“I stand by the required temperate cuts I proposed to bring Pennsylvania’s fiscal house in order,” said Rendell.
“I, however, refuse to abandon the children of the commonwealth and their right to a first-rate education. Today we take the first step toward ending the regressive system where the quality of a child’s education is directly dependent on the ZIP code in which they live.”
Now it’s up to Pennsylvania’s leaders to recognize the need for progressive, innovative education reform. And it all starts with funding.
Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties each have school districts that rank among the wealthiest in the nation.
Based on 2000 figures, their combined revenue is about $868 million.
Using the criteria of total district revenue divided by the number of students, the per-pupil spending by county is: Bucks, $7,750; Chester, $7,822; Delaware County, $7,237; and Montgomery County, $8,403.
In these counties, about 60 percent of education revenue was raised locally.
By default, wealthy areas will have more wealthy schools.
And, while money alone does not equal quality education, their inherent relationship is undeniable.
The ability to hire qualified teachers, buy up-to-date textbooks and maintain modern facilities are all intrinsically linked to school district revenues.
In Philadelphia, revenue falls way short of these neighboring counties. More than $608 million is raised locally, and that accounts for only a third of total school district revenue.
State and federal grants make up the rest, but in the end, each Philadelphia public school student gets only $6,000 toward his or her education.
It is an oversimplification, however, to reduce the deficiencies of Philadelphia’s public schools strictly to money matters.
The district’s administration has been in shambles for years, and whoever is in control faces the daunting task of improving the performances of both students and teachers.
But the task can be made easier with revenue distribution reform.
By allowing such sharp disparities in per-pupil spending, the government, at all levels, is sanctioning the practice of educational discrimination.
Lawmakers in Harrisburg have not yielded concrete, long-term solutions to filter more money into failing districts.
They are more concerned with their privatization power play, and are holding revenue distribution reform hostage behind the hope that Edison will fix what ails our city schools.
Playing politics is no justification for letting our children down.
Students in wealthy districts receive – either through public or private schools – an education that meets or exceeds national standards.
Yet, all school taxes for students in private schools are filtered into their home district by default.
As a result, the district’s revenue goes up, while the number of students enrolled goes down.
With the dire straights of other districts – like Philadelphia – this process is unjust.
A substantial amount of school taxes for children who attend private schools should be apportioned to failing districts, perhaps as much as 50 percent.
Collectively, this will prove to be a substantial amount of revenue for the limited number of districts receiving it, but the district-by-district burden will not be overwhelming.
In most cases, the lost revenue can be regained after one referendum.
And the state, which loves to meddle in local affairs, can make sure the new money is redistributed fairly.
With redirected funding, equal education is possible for all of Pennsylvania’s children, without breaking the budget.
Jesse Chadderdon can be reached at email@example.com.