Lancaster Online: Editorial: Hope for a Budget, with K-12 Funding

The LNP Editorial Board Nov 18, 2015

The “framework” budget agreement being negotiated between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican legislative leaders includes $350 million more for basic education and $50 million more for special education. The governor’s spokesman, Jeff Sheridan, also says the governor is committed to seeking $50 million more for preschool education. A 21 percent boost in the state sales tax to 7.25 percent statewide (8.25 percent in Allegheny County and 9.25 percent in Philadelphia) would provide property tax relief. Distribution of that relief and safeguards against future property tax increases are being hammered out.

The boosts in funding to public schools that have been agreed to by both sides are perhaps the first true rays of light in Pennsylvania’s now 141-day-old budget stalemate.

Education has, according to polls by Franklin & Marshall College’s Center for Opinion Research, been the top or No. 2 concern of Pennsylvania voters since June 2014. It was the top issue of Wolf’s successful campaign. So, it’s good that all have agreed to a $400 million increase for K-12 education.

An added $50 million for pre-K programs — when done right save $7 for every dollar spent — should be settled quickly.

“It’s not that we oppose it,” House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin told LNP on Tuesday. “It’s about how much money we have.”

Given pre-K’s payback potential, Wolf is right to dig in on this issue.

A reasonable extraction tax on natural gas should do the trick. And that, unfortunately, is something Republicans have opposed.

While school officials are upset that it has even been mentioned, we will take the optimistic view that Republicans are not committed to requiring a back-end referendum every time a school district wants to raise property taxes.

On the downside, this awful proposal “is definitely being discussed” and “it has support” among Republicans who want some form of accountability on property taxes, Miskin said.

The idea is terrible — more on that later — but it addresses a legitimate concern.

“Once you cut property taxes, how do you make sure they don’t just go up again?” Miskin asked.

For a variety of reasons, a referendum on every future school property tax increase is not the right answer.

First, the school property tax is about the only form of local control school districts in Pennsylvania have.

Second, as David W. Patti, CEO and president of the Pennsylvania Business Council, put it, the proposal is “disingenuous” in the message it sends to school districts.

That message, Patti said, is: “We’re going to hold you accountable for results, we’re going to keep adding new mandates but we’re going to tie one hand behind your back” with a back-end referendum that keeps you from raising the funds needed to provide a good education.

We agree. The back-end referendum is neither fair nor productive.

Third, as Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, said, a back-end referendum would set up a nearly impossible task for superintendents, at least in the short run.

Superintendents would have to focus more attention on building a case for public support for school budgets than on educating students.

Here in Pennsylvania, Himes noted, 175 school districts get more than half of their revenue from local property taxes. If such a school district were to face higher state-mandated pension costs, higher state-mandated charter school tuition bills and higher federally mandated special education costs, it would have to get that money from its 30 percent state funding.

Read the full editorial here.