Pennsylvania has broken a new record, and it’s not one to be proud of: the current budget impasse is the now longest in the state’s history.
Not only are the 2015-16 budget talks still ongoing – now in their seventh month – but they have also yet to be finalized less than a month before Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf helms the 2016-17 budget negotiations. These are the very same talks I wrote about last March; then, having just read the nascent budget proposal, I was optimistic about its potential to drive progress at Temple.
Today, almost a year later, it appears as if that progress I had hoped for will be slower to take off than I thought—and the threats to public education are growing.
The seven-month deadlock has plunged state schools—elementary- and university-level—into a welter of uncertainty, borrowing $1 billion in total, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
Yet again, educational institutions with students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds are treated as nothing more than collateral damage.
And unfortunately, the problem is not limited to Pennsylvania; it is widespread. A budget impasse in Illinois has led to the elimination of the Monetary Award Program grants this semester—the Illinois-equivalent of state grants from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency—at some schools.
Even PHEAA’s official website reminds students of the grants’ progress: in the FAQ section, it states, “until the Pennsylvania budget is passed, we will not be able to establish the actual State Grant awards or disburse funds to any institution.”
Instead of investing in resources elsewhere—like in innovative programs which enrich the undergraduate experience—the ability to afford college is now a growing concern.
And while it’s highly unlikely the Commonwealth will resort to Illinois-level action regarding the budget, it’s unnerving to look at the effect the breakdown of productive dialogue within state legislatures is having on the public. If the impasse were to become the new norm— a ritual we should all stray away from —it would have potentially devastating effects on the already unstable Philadelphia public school district, among other institutions.
When the talks conclude, and I believe they will soon—or else—it’s critical the state legislature ensures educational issues, especially ones pertaining to school districts and public education, be placed at the forefront. In December, it looked like headlines were warning of possible Philadelphia school closings.
Not only did students have to come to terms with the lack of necessary resources conducive to learning, but they had to ask whether class was even in session. If Harrisburg manages to prioritize, and not politicize certain budget items as early as possible, perhaps then the stability which the school district has been deprived of can be restored, at least for some time.
Other civil society organizations, like nonprofits, have also felt the effects of the impasse ripple through their ranks: a number of early-education programs that provide services to primarily low-income families had to “interrupt programs and lay off employees,” according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
Joseph P. McLaughlin, director of Temple’s Institute for Public Affairs, believes the impasse has a two-pronged cost.
“[The impasse] has not only a budgetary cost in that it puts extra borrowing on the district’s books, but there is also a social cost that is hard to quantify,” he said.
These costs include delayed payments to vendors of the School District of Philadelphia and a lack of key resources being made available to students, said Fernando Gallard, chief of communications for the district.
“The impasse has imposed a battery of limitations ranging from Advanced Placement course offerings to counselors to nurses and to music and art programs,” Gallard said.
Some may purport that these limitations are temporary, and therefore insignificant in the long-term. However, the complete opposite is true: for the third-year high school student, one less AP course could be the difference between a college acceptance and a rejection; for the fifth-grade student who requires extra in-class academic assistance, a lack of counselors could be the difference between moving to the sixth-grade or repeating; and for the seventh-grade student with a chronic illness, a dearth of school nurses could pose severe consequences.
As for a solution, Gallard believes that change, an end to our state government’s dysfunction, will occur only when citizens make their public education expectations clear, stand together and ask for change “at the ballot box.”
With those expectations made clear, quality educational opportunities can be ensured for all students—from Erie to Philadelphia.
Romsin McQuade can be reached at email@example.com.