School Taxes and Education Quality: Rendells Rhetoric Versus Reality

Governor Rendell’s inaugural speech reiterated his campaign promise to reform Pennsylvania’s school funding and property tax system while boosting the state’s share of total school revenue to 50 percent. But now its time for Rendell’s campaign rhetoric to meet economic reality.

During the campaign, Rendell claimed that this goal could be achieved by using monies generated through ferreting out waste and inefficiencies in state government, putting slot machines at the racetracks, redirecting a significant portion of the new cigarette tax revenues, and a tax increase if necessary.

However, even one of Rendell’s top advisors admitted his numbers don’t add up. Donna Cooper, Rendell’s new director of policy and former executive director of Good Schools Pennsylvania, says it will take a near $3 billion state tax increase to meet the Governor’s arbitrarily set goal of 50 percent state share.

But before the governor sends another dollar to the public schools, the following facts about the cost and quality of public education in Pennsylvania should be considered: During the 2000-01 school year, Pennsylvania public schools received an estimated $16.9 billion and spent, on average, more than $9,900 per pupil. When adjusted for the cost of living, Pennsylvania spent more per student than 47 states and the District of Columbia. In addition, Pennsylvania teachers received the highest average salaries in the nation at nearly $53,000, when adjusted for the cost of living. Of course, having the highest teacher salaries would be a good thing if we paid teachers according to competency, performance or demand.

Most people acknowledge that a quality education requires an investment of both time and money. But what are we truly getting in return for the billions of tax dollars handed over to the public school system every year?

Unfortunately, by almost any measure, more dollars have failed to produce more scholars. For example, over the last seven years, public school expenditures increased more than 131 percent faster than the rate of inflation, while academic performance on the SAT college entrance exam improved by only 0.8 percent. Yet despite this “improvement,” Pennsylvania still placed 46th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia on the SAT in 2002.

On the state’s Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test, nearly 51 percent of all test takers in the Class of 2003 scored so low on the math portion that they are eligible to take it again. Forty-one percent and 30 percent of test takers scored poorly enough on the reading and writing portions, respectively, to be able to retake the test.

In other words, Pennsylvanians keep paying more and getting less year after year. With such lackluster academic performance indicators and ever-increasing infusions of taxpayer cash, it is hard to believe that Commonwealth citizens aren’t more upset than Enron stockholders.

Long-term solutions to high costs and poor performance in our public schools will require the political courage to do more than simply shift the school tax burden away from property taxes and add more state money to local school budgets. If Governor Rendell hopes to improve the quality of public education in Pennsylvania, he must embrace the powerful incentives of parental choice and school competition.

After all, it is choice for consumers and competition among providers that incessantly spurs innovation and improves our quality of life on a daily basis. It is the marketplace—not government monopolies—that have provided the world everything good from desktop computers to life-saving medicines. In education, it will be parents who can exercise choice among competing schools that will finally fuel the engine that drives the continuous quality improvements that currently elude Pennsylvania’s public school system today.

While skyrocketing property taxes are driving the current school funding debate, it is really the quality of life for Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania’s children that is at stake. So instead of focusing on the state’s 50 percent share, Governor Rendell should spend 100 percent of his political capital on creating more educational choices for children and increased competition among schools.

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Matthew J. Brouillette is president of The Commonwealth Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit, public policy research and educational institute in Harrisburg, PA. For more information, visit