Inquirer Editorial: Public schools shouldn't have to beg for money

Pennsylvania Budget
The state can do better by schools than what is in the budget Gov. Tom Wolf wold wouldn't sign, but so can the city.

Schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. doesn't plan to ask City Council for more money this year, but that doesn't mean public schools don't need it. When Hite told reporters in a budget briefing Thursday that he wouldn't make that "ask," one couldn't help thinking he might be tired of begging the city for money to educate its children.

The School District's share of the $30 billion state budget that will go into effect without Gov. Wolf's signature is not only very late but also close to last year's $1.38 billion, with a relatively modest $52 million increase expected. That will allow the district to finish the school year, but it will remain challenged by the fiscal mire created by former Gov. Tom Corbett's cuts.

This year's state budget, which arrived nine months past its due date because the Democratic governor and Republican-led legislature couldn't agree on spending and taxes, forced school districts across the state to borrow money to stay open. Loans will cost the Philadelphia schools $8 million in debt service.

Fortunately, several unforeseen circumstances - some good, some bad - helped the district stay afloat. It ended fiscal 2015 with an $88 million surplus that was largely due to savings derived from a backlog in filling teacher vacancies. In fact, 150 teaching positions are still unfilled. The district also enjoyed reduced energy costs and higher-than-expected revenue from cigarette taxes and delinquent collections.

Of course, you can't run an effective school system without enough teachers, and you can't depend on unexpected tax windfalls to bail you out every year. That means Hite and school superintendents across Pennsylvania must put their faith in Wolf to do a better job of working with the legislature to produce a 2016-17 budget.

The governor thought he had done that months ago, only to have the Republican leadership withdraw the budget it had negotiated from consideration in December. After seeing schools and human-services agencies struggle for weeks without state funding, Wolf finally relented Wednesday and let a Republican spending plan go into effect without his signature. But the plan shortchanges schools and doesn't address the underfunded pension system.

Putting his trust in Wolf, Hite presented a five-year spending plan to the School Reform Commission that includes an additional $440 million for literacy programs, career development, and teacher raises. But that money is unlikely to materialize unless Wolf and the legislature agree to new sources of revenue.

Philadelphia can help by doing more than having Wolf's back. It can set an example, which is why it's disappointing that Mayor Kenney's proposed budget didn't include any new money for K-12 schools. Must the district come hat in hand every year before City Hall acknowledges the obvious need?

City Council President Darrell Clarke complained last year that Council doesn't get enough credit for the sales and cigarette tax increases and other allocations it has approved over the past four years to give an additional $400 million to city schools. But that's like asking your child, "Didn't I buy you shoes last year?"

Investing in schoolchildren is a never-ending responsibility, but the rewards, too, can be eternal. Both state and city officials should know that.