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Recently, my colleague from Philadelphia, state Sen. Art Haywood, joined Gov. Tom Wolf in his opinion piece calling for “Restoring Education Cuts First” before applying the new education funding formula unanimously recommended last year by a vote of the bipartisan Basic Education Funding (BEF) Commission – a vote which included three “yes” votes by Gov. Wolf’s own cabinet members.

Their motto would be better stated as “Philadelphia-First.”

For 12 months, the bipartisan Basic Education Funding Commission reviewed every aspect of school funding and concluded  that the Philadelphia School District was only underfunded by $53 million, merely 2 percent of its operating budget.

More telling, the BEF Commission declared Reading School District was underfunded by $95 million per year, which is a staggering 42 percent of Reading’s $227 million budget.

Allentown School District is underfunded by $66 million, which is 25.6 percent of its existing $257 million School budget. Lancaster School District is underfunded by $46.8 million, which is 25.2 percent of its existing $185 million school budget.

Many underfunded school districts are underfunded by more than 50 percent of the funding recommended by the BEF Commission. The long-harassed taxpayers in Wilkes-Barre (53.8 percent underfunded), Pocono Mountain (53.1 percent), East Stroudsburg (53.3 percent), Pottstown (55.2 percent), State College (62.2 percent), Conestoga Valley (74.5 percent) and Jim Thorpe (66.8 percent) will continue to suffer.

Conversely, while loudly crying wolf about “Corbett” cuts, the Pittsburgh School District, the state’s second largest district, is actually over-funded by $57 million, spends over $21,000 per student and lavishly enjoys a $121.4 million Fund Balance, which exceeds 23.2 percent of its General Fund Budget. Three “yes” votes by Gov. Wolf’s cabinet members confirmed Pittsburgh School District was over-funded by $57 million.  Disregarding these facts, on April 5, Wolf announced Pittsburgh School District would get an additional $7.5 million, plus $3 million budget allocation earmarked under Wilkinsburg School District.

According to Gov. Wolf and Sen. Haywood, Philadelphia has a monopoly on poverty. But other cities, boroughs, townships and regions are just as poor.  Reading, Allentown, Lancaster, York, Erie, Wilkes-Barre and Scranton are equally or more severely poor.

Then Sen. Haywood stated, “Gov. Wolf recognizes that we must reverse the decades long, inequitable funding of schools in Pennsylvania.”

We agree.  But, despite this pledge, and the fact that BEF Commission states that Reading School District is by far the most underfunded district, Gov. Wolf only gives Reading $3 million.

Under the Gov. Wolf plan, Allentown School District only gets $2.6 million, York City School District gets $2.3 million, Erie School District gets $1.9 million, Scranton School District gets $1.3 million. Lancaster School District only gets $1.2 million, Wilkes-Barre School District gets $734,017, Easton School District gets $645,850, Pottstown School District gets $491,719 and Lebanon School District gets $396,227. Just crumbs go to State College, which gets a measly $328,986.

Since the 1991-92 tax increase, my three school districts, Pocono Mountain, East Stroudsburg and Stroudsburg, have been shortchanged by more than $600 million, with significant negative impacts.  At that time, to overcome a budget impasse, the General Assembly and governor decided to stop counting students and simply give schools the same amount of funding as the prior year plus a typical 2 percent increase, no matter the change in student population. Over the years with this new “hold harmless” provision, many districts finagled special legislative budget allocations which unfairly increased their Basic Education Funding level while other districts and taxpayers suffered.  Worse, growing school districts never received adequate additional funding for new students.

So before crying wolf, let’s have a real conversation about restoration.  Instead of political rhetoric, let’s start using facts.

  • The findings of the Basic Education Funding Commission 100 percent negate and refute the Wolf/Haywood arguments for restoration, and establish the notion that restoring those moneys would create more inequities, postponing fairness for decades.
  • We all can appreciate that Sen. Haywood represents Philadelphia in the General Assembly. But an objective world acknowledges that the most underfunded district, Reading, should receive the largest allocation of new Basic Education funding and Allentown should receive the second largest allocation.
  • And, if you want to talk about restoration, let’s talk about restoring all of the accumulated K-12 education funding deficits that started in 1991, when hold harmless was introduced.

Gov. Wolf, if you want to talk about restoration and poverty, let’s start the discussion with the Casey school funding cuts in 1991. Let’s restore fair funding - FIRST to the 180 underfunded school districts delineated in the Basic Education Funding Commission report and approved by three of your cabinet members. Once the 180 underfunded districts are made whole, let’s continue to count students, poverty and fairness, before politics as usual, using the June 2015, unanimously adopted, bipartisan Basic Education Funding formula.

To learn more: www.SupportEquityFirst.org or, like us on Facebook.

— David Parker is a state representative from Monroe County. 

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