Battle continues over Marcellus Shale taxes, education dollars

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – School funding in Pennsylvania is complicated and a mixed bag.

The numbers tell conflicting stories.

At $29 billion overall and $15,000 per pupil, Pennsylvania is well above the national average in its support of K-12 public schools.

But on average, the state contributes 36 percent to a district’s overall budget, among the worst in the nation.

The commonwealth, by far, is the worst in the nation when it comes to funding inequities. That is, the disparity between wealthier districts and poorer districts is more acute in Pennsylvania than anywhere else in the nation.

But, at $29 billion, critics can’t rightly suggest there’s no money for schools.

“That works out to $856 every second that we’re spending every minute of every day, seven days a week,” Senator Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon/Dauphin/York) said during a lively hour on WITF’s Radio Smart Talk Wednesday morning. I was honored to co-host the discussion on school funding in Pennsylvania.

Folmer was a member of the Basic Education Funding Commission, which recently released recommendations on how to make funding more equitable and fair in the state. The proposed formula would weigh factors like a district’s relative wealth, its number of students in poverty and who are English language learners, its number of special education students, and those in charter schools.

Folmer concedes the current distribution system is flawed and needs to be fixed. He’s just not convinced steering lots more money at the problem is the prudent answer.

But money matters, according to Senator Rob Teplitz (D-Dauphin/Perry) who was also on the funding commission.

“Personally, I believe funding needs to be targeted to reforms and programs that are proven to work, things like early childhood education, smaller class size, tutoring technology and the like. But there are some who don’t recognize any role for money and I think that’s misguided.”

Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said he and Governor Tom Wolf are demanding accountability from schools, but resources are depleted across the state.

“Our budget is an expression of our values,” Rivera said.

And the budget is being held up, in part, because Wolf wants more money for schools, especially those poorer districts. Wolf says he wants to change the inequities, but Republicans insinuate he really wants the extra cash for teacher salaries, benefits and pensions.

Rivera says that’s just not so.

“If you want a great cardiologist, you’re not complaining about how much your cardiologist makes,” Rivera said. “So, why do we complain about the investment in education when we want our children to have access to the best opportunities available? And so, it’s resources. Teachers are one of those resources.”

Folmer, former chair of the Senate Education Committee, has his doubts. He says he’s personally seen examples of waste in the educational system and thinks that should be tightened up before taxes are raised or funding’s increased. He also thinks the dispute is more about adults than the students.

“I want to know how our dollars are being spent and that our education is really about the child,” Folmer said. “Is it truly about the child?”

Republicans are also questioning Senate Bill 116. That’s the legislative vehicle that would slap a severance tax on Marcellus Shale drillers and steer the money toward education.

“Yeah, he (Wolf) absolutely campaigned on raising the Marcellus tax for education,” said Representative Brian Ellis (R-Butler), “but unfortunately, what he’s doing is not that.”

Senate Bill 116 is 27 pages and lays out with great specificity how hundreds of millions of newfound tax dollars would be spent. It earmarks money for counties and municipalities. It lays out formulas for steering money to the Fish and Boat Commission, The Department of Environment Protection, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, the State Fire Commissioner, PennDOT, the Public Utility Commission, and for economic development grants.

But there are no specifics on how any money would be steered toward education. In fact, the word education is only mentioned three times in the bill, which merely says money left over after the aforementioned expenses are paid would go to education.

“It’s like when we passed gaming,” Ellis said. “Everyone in Pennsylvania thought that the money would be given for property tax relief, but at the bottom of the bill it says oh, by the way, it’s only the money left over.”

“But that’s not the majority of the money,” countered Teplitz. “The majority is everything that’s left that goes to education. I think it’s a relatively simple concept and maybe misleading in its simplicity, but I think it tries to implement the governor’s goal.”

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