By Michael K. Pearson
and Tomea Sippio-Smith
On Monday, Pennsylvania legislators will begin their annual scrutiny of the Department of Education at budget hearings. They should be grappling with the fact that the impact of the priorities they set will go far beyond the confines of a classroom.
Today's employers demand competent, highly skilled workers. Although most of Pennsylvania's children attend public schools, far too few of the schools are preparing students to meet these demands.
Many of our students are not entering the job market workforce ready. Of the 428 employers who participated in the 2016 Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry's Workforce Development Survey:
93 percent noted some difficulty in recruiting qualified candidates.
76 percent describe the readiness of the labor force to meet their needs as fair or poor.
73 percent of the time job applicants were underqualified for open positions.
The state's economic solvency relies on its large and small businesses' ability to recruit and retain a talented workforce. From a purely economic standpoint, it is cost-effective for businesses to conscript local employees for their staffing needs.
Public schools provide the business community's largest and most easily accessible pool of raw human capital. Currently, at the student level, neither the state's investments nor the business community's input have consistently produced the highly skilled applicants we require.
Like all states, Pennsylvania's public schools are funded at the federal, state, and local level. However, the state's relative share of contribution to education funding is 37.6 percent - far below the national average. Consequently, local governments and taxpayers are largely funding public education without adequate support from the state.
This payment structure fails to ensure that every student/prospective employee has access to high-quality teachers, materials, rigorous classes, tutoring, or other skills he or she needs to graduate career ready.
On the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, fewer than half of Pennsylvania fourth and eighth graders were proficient in reading or math.
Low-income and minority students and students whose parents have less than a high school education performed even worse. The economic disequilibrium that results from our inability to transform all students into catalysts for growth should be maddening to businesses and industry across the state. Research suggests that achievement gaps cost Pennsylvania's existing labor force billions of dollars annually.
Investing in education produces tangible, measurable results for students, employers, and the economy. Providing adequate funding for education has been shown to increase academic achievement, improve employment outcomes, and bolster economic impact.
For low-income kids, an annual increase in school funding has been shown to significantly improve high school graduation rates and lead to higher earning potential, increased family income, and a reduced incidence of adult poverty.
If the performance gaps among race-ethnicity or economic status were closed, estimated annual gains to Pennsylvania's economy would be in the billions of dollars.
In 2015, in a bipartisan, bicameral effort, Pennsylvania enacted a school funding formula designed to boost student impact and reduce pressure on local taxes throughout the state. Last year, $400 million, or approximately 3 percent of the state's basic education funding (BEF) flowed through it. Credible research indicates that if significantly more BEF dollars were distributed through the formula, more students would have access to the resources they need.
Public schools in Pennsylvania educate 1,731,588 students annually. The factors surrounding education are complicated, but the solution isn't. The business community cannot afford another minute of inaction; we must advocate to get students and potential employees what they need to acquire the skills our businesses demand. When we adequately invest in every kid in every neighborhood, we are investing in a middle class.
We are funding opportunities for economic self-sufficiency. We are lifting families out of generational poverty. We are nurturing future homeowners. We are creating employees capable of earning family-sustaining income. We are educating graduates that are workforce ready.
Michael K. Pearson is the president and CEO of Union Packaging. Tomea Sippio-Smith is the K-12 policy director at Public Citizens for Children and Youth.