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Chester County Press

Public education advocates urge state lawmakers to pass severance tax

07/09/2014 08:20PM ● By Acl

Leaders of organizations that work to ensure public schools provide a quality education for all children have urged the General Assembly to reject a “cuts-only” state budget. They urged passage of severance tax on natural gas production and other measure to raise revenue to prevent further damage to students and school districts.

The state’s $1.5 billion budget deficit has once again put education funding in jeopardy. Increases in funding proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett, including $271 million in new funding for basic and special education -- increases that school districts have already built into their budgets -- may not be funded. On average, less than 50 percent of funding cuts enacted in 2011 have been restored, and costs for districts continue to rise. If the General Assembly does not raise new revenue, school districts will have to impose additional layoffs, make further cuts to essential academic programs, and raise local property taxes.

Legislators have a choice: Continue cuts, leading to fewer teachers, larger classes, fewer programs and higher property taxes; or enact a 5 percent tax on natural gas drilling and use the revenue to begin to restore public school budgets as the governor promised.

Jim Buckheit, of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said, “Public schools are hurting. It is time for the General Assembly to meet its Constitutional obligation of providing for a thorough and efficient system of public education that serves the needs of the commonwealth by providing adequate and equitable state funding to support that system. Enactment of a modest natural gas extraction tax to support public schools would be an important first step towards meeting that obligation.”

A survey released by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials chronicles the damage caused by state funding cuts. The survey found:

-- About 75 percent of school districts expect to increase local property taxes during the next school year;

-- Local revenues make up a growing majority of school funding in almost every region in Pennsylvania;

-- Ninety percent of districts have reduced staff, with more than 40 percent laying off teachers;

-- Even with the restoration of some funding included in the governor’s budget proposal, more than half of the school districts plan to eliminate or reduce 370 academic

programs during the next school year. This is on top of the 783 programs eliminated since 2010-11;

-- More than a third of districts plan to cut, reduce or charge students fees to participate in 220 extracurricular and sports programs;

-- Sixty four percent of school districts have increased class sizes, especially in elementary schools, since 2010-11; 

-- About 75 percent of school districts expect to see increased costs because of state mandates.

“The revenue from the natural gas resource should be reinvested back into Pennsylvania’s children to boost its economy over the long term,” said Sharon Ward, executive director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. “The alternative to the severance tax is higher local property taxes and lower-performing schools.”

Steve Robinson, senior director of communications for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said, "Pennsylvania must stand firm with its obligation to fully fund public education. We urge the General Assembly to adopt a budget that maintains the Governor’s proposed increases for basic and special education. In light of projected revenue shortfalls this year, we encourage consideration of ways to preserve this funding through additional income sources."

“Thirty-two of 35 school districts in Bucks and Montgomery counties are increasing property taxes once again this year, for the fourth year in a row. Philadelphia has also raised taxes four times to help pay for its schools. Even with those increases the district is still looking at cutting additional teaching positions and increasing class size to 41 in high schools,” said Donna Cooper of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a child advocacy organization based in southeastern Pennsylvania. “Years of state disinvestment in schools is putting our children’s future in peril. We must change direction by adopting a budget that invests the revenues from the Marcellus shale in our schools.”

"Essential programs and personnel have already been cut in school districts throughout the state -- counseling services, nurses, librarians,” said Rhonda Brownstein, director of the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania. “Further cuts would devastate our schools and communities. The state must step up and ensure our students are safe and have equal opportunities to learn."

The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center is a non-partisan policy research project that provides independent analysis on state tax, budget and related policy matters, with attention to the impact of current or proposed policies on working families.