Commentary: Pa. needs more stable source of school funding

Shifting funding for Pennsylvania's public schools from property taxes to sales and incomes taxes could fail to provide stable and equitable revenue.

By Abe Feuerstein

Providing schools in Pennsylvania with stable, equitable funding is an enormous challenge.

Today, the commonwealth relies on a system in which localities raise about 56 percent of the funding for schools through property taxes and get 37 percent from the state and about 7 percent from the federal government, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Because property values vary so much from one community to the next, poor communities must often tax themselves at much higher rates than more wealthy communities to raise necessary funds.

The state tries to address this inequity by providing poorer communities with somewhat more state funding than it provides to wealthy communities. However, with the state funding only 37 percent of total educational costs, the inequities that remain are quite stark. The gap between the per-pupil spending rate in Pennsylvania's wealthiest and poorest communities in 2014-15 was more than $25,000. The lowest expenditure was Juniata County School District, at $10,686 per student, and the highest was Richland at $37,165. For a single classroom of 25 students, this is a disparity of $625,000.

Over the last few years, there has been much discussion about the possibility of doing away with property taxes and replacing that revenue stream with funds raised from increased state sales and income taxes. Proponents suggest that such a plan would be better for taxpayers, particularly retirees with fixed incomes, and they are working on a bill that would put these changes into place.

While I'm no fan of property taxes, this proposed tax shift maintains the resource gaps between wealthy and poor districts. This shift would also fail to provide a stable and equitable funding source for Pennsylvania's public schools for the following reasons:

Sales and income taxes are vulnerable to changes in the economy. In the event of a recession, schools would face even more funding-related hardships than they did following the recession of 2008.

Community businesses would no longer be required to pay property taxes in support of local public schools. In other words, employers, who rely on having an educated workforce, would provide fewer resources for public schools.

Without local funding sources, decisions about the education of Pennsylvania children would increasingly take place in Harrisburg rather than in local communities.

More importantly, the current proposal for eliminating property taxes does nothing to address the inequalities in funding that exist among the state's 501 school districts. Instead of creating a means to provide school districts with funding based on factors such as the number of students being educated, the needs of the children, a district's ability to raise revenue, and the costs of providing students with a "thorough and efficient system of public education," as called for by the state constitution, the current proposal bases the allotment of funding on what was provided to the districts by the state in the previous year. Such a move essentially would freeze existing (and often inadequate) levels of funding for schools and hold inequities among districts in place.

Instead of ignoring these issues, my recommendation is to improve the educational funding system by reducing property taxes for individuals on fixed incomes, while simultaneously increasing the proportion of education funding coming from state sales and income taxes. Such a move would achieve parity between state and local funding sources and provide a more stable source of revenue for public education.

Providing additional state funds to schools, through a system designed to consider each district's revenue-raising capacity and educational needs, would create a fairer and more equitable funding system that could provide more students with the education they deserve.

Abe Feuerstein is a professor of education at Bucknell University. He is also the director of the writing program and chair of the school's Composition Council.

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