Today, Gov. Tom Wolf doubled down on his tax-and-spend agenda, proposing a $3 billion spending increase—a 10 percent bump, the largest in 25 years—requiring broad-based tax increases of $850 per family of four.
Pennsylvania school districts spent $26.1 billion in 2013-14, an all-time high, according to the latest data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. This represents a $600 million increase from 2012-13. Districts spent $15,019 per student in 2013-14, up from $14,621 in 2012-13
The reality is, state taxpayers are already paying enough for public education. The governor and lawmakers must find smarter ways to spend this money, not keep asking for more.
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How fitting that Wolf chose Groundhog Day to demand another $577 million in basic education funding—$377 million for the rest of FY 2015-16 and an addition $200 million in the next fiscal year. The governor’s demands are rooted in the “framework budget” from last November, which was rumored to include $350 million in new basic education funding.
“I believe they may be the only party that does not believe the framework is dead,” said Senate GOP spokeswoman Jenn Kocher of the Wolf administration. “I'm sorry but it died the day that pensions did.”
The administration provided no explanation for why the $350 million figure increased to $377 million. Perhaps this was intended to offset the $50 million in borrowing costs incurred by school districts as a direct result of Wolf’s budget vetoes. Nonetheless, the administration seeks to distribute the 2015-16 funding through a hyper-political “formula” that ignores the recommendation of the state’s Basic Education Funding Commission.
Wolf continues to demand more spending while placing little value on smarter spending, which is exactly what the Funding Commission was created to ensure. The governor is not demonstrating a willingness to compromise, either: his education spending requests are not much different than his original proposal last March.
Rather than a $377 million windfall, what schools really need is the $3.1 billion that Wolf vetoed in December.
Of course, Pennsylvania revenue per-student already exceeds the national average by $3,400. Even when looking solely at state funding, Pennsylvania schools are better-funded than average.
Upon finally approving the majority of a state budget, Gov. Tom Wolf admonished the General Assembly for "cutting $95 million from public schools." Yet it is the governor himself who is responsible for vetoing $3.1 billion worth of education funding.
In a recent op-ed, my colleague Nate Benefield explains Wolf's misleading budget math:
Wolf is propagating the bold-faced lie that the budget cuts education by $95 million.
In truth, the budget increases public school funding by $400 million. The only education line item reduced is school construction reimbursement. This is not being cut, however. Instead, it’s being funded with state bonds, and school districts will actually get more in construction reimbursements.
This cynical negotiation ploy—intended to force House and Senate leaders to return to the bargaining table—shows Wolf's primary motivation is higher taxes, not higher education spending. By only releasing six months worth of school funding, the administration refuses to fully free the state's budget hostages.
The chart below illustrates Wolf's education cut and how much money he withheld from local districts. (All figures from the Department of Education.)
Tom Wolf finally admitted he held school children hostage in hopes of higher taxes: “We're now at a point where I don't want to hold the children of Pennsylvania hostage.” But the governor’s six month crusade for tax hikes hurts more than children. His refusal to sign earlier emergency funding measures resulted in unnecessary pain and worry for countless Pennsylvanians.
Here are ten of Wolf's budget hostages from 2015:
- Children on the brink of returning to failing or violent schools: The governor waited until Christmas Eve to release authorization letters that allow businesses to donate private school scholarships, even though these programs are part of the tax code and have nothing to do with the budget. This resulted in confusion, and possibly fewer donations, which could disrupt the education for thousands of low- and middle-income students.
- Human service employees: Delayed funding to human services agencies caused more than 700 furloughs, according to a United Way survey. Others employees lost benefits or took salary reductions.
- Pre-kindergarteners: At the start of December, 15 early childhood centers were closed, according to the state Department of Education, affecting about 540 children from low-income families.
- Domestic abuse victims: Wolf cut off all funding—including federal—for domestic violence programs, forcing workers at shelters like Survivors Inc. in Adams County to turn away pregnant women and over 100 children. At the beginning of December, Wolf released some federal funds for these victims.
- Charter school students: Across Pennsylvania, charter schools were forced to reach into rainy day funds in order to remain open. Since charters are viewed as riskier investments than traditional school districts, it is more challenging for charters to borrow money. Pennsylvania charters were also denied revenue from the state Treasury when local districts were unwilling or unable to contribute per-student payments.
- Senior citizens: Senior centers around the state closed during the impasse. All four senior centers in Mercer County closed and laid off 50 percent of their employees.
- The hungry: Food banks across the commonwealth struggled throughout the impasse and some dipped into their reserve funds to keep putting food on the table.
- Local taxpayers: Interest payments for schools borrowing money to stay open have reached nearly $1 billion
- Local taxpayers II: Municipalities and counties have skimped on payments and considered borrowing funds to remain afloat. These measures resulted in tax increases or even bond rating downgrades.
- College students: State and federal grants for college students were on hold, as well. East Stroudsburg University offered bookstore credit to PHEAA grantees beginning in November and Penn State added the grants as a credit to bills even though the money hadn't yet come through.