The “Mis-education” of Ed Rendell
Gov. Rendell wants to increase taxes to continue the double-the-rate-of-inflation spending that has defined his tenure. In order to sell his state budget plan to an increasingly skeptical public, he has resorted to deception and hyperbole on education spending.
Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak traveled to 14 school districts on a five-day bus tour that also featured Rendell and U.S. Senator Bob Casey. The mantra was that taxes have to be raised “for the children,” some of whom were pulled out of class and used as political props.
At each stop the secretary repeated the lie that the Senate’s budget proposal (SB 850) would drastically cut education funding, leaving school districts with no choice but to increase property taxes. As the secretary knows, however, SB 850 would increase each district’s funding support to its highest level in history (an 11.7 percent increase, on average).
Zahorchak said SB 850 would leave a “canyon in education funding” after the federal stimulus monies (on which the legislation draws heavily for school districts) discontinue in two years. However, Rendell is insistent that not only will the economy soon rebound, but that tax revenue collections will increase by 10 percent—to levels capable of filling the gap. If Rendell is wrong and the economy doesn’t rebound, his spending plan will leave Pennsylvania in a bigger canyon than SB 850 would, and with yet another painful tax increase as the only tool for climbing out.
Despite the rhetoric and illogic of the Rendell administration, school officials, and union bosses, the crux of the matter is each district’s inability to control rampant spending. Even though state funding for education has increased 61 percent since 1996-97, nearly twice the inflation rate of inflation, the state’s share of education funding has declined over time. Blame the shift in the ratio to a 76 percent increase in local school district spending over the same period, including a 137 percent increase in construction costs and debt. In fact, the districts which receive the most funding per student spend the highest share of their funds on buildings, leaving less for instructional costs.
Sen. Casey contributed to the misinformation while demonstrating that he still has not read the stimulus bill for which he voted. Casey and Zahorchak insist SB 850 violates the intended use of the stimulus funds. However, page two of the bill clearly states the intent of the legislation, “To stabilize state and local government budgets, in order to minimize and avoid reductions in essential services and counterproductive state and local tax increases.” The Senate’s budget plan effectively fulfills this purpose by ensuring that current property tax revenues are sufficient to fund education programs, thus preventing a state tax increase.
Rendell and his lieutenants were unable to address the facts with anything but emotional rhetoric. The secretary continually fell back on his bogus, makeshift claim that the Senate’s proposed allocation of stimulus funds would preclude Pennsylvania from being eligible for a share of $4.35 billion to be divided among several states. However, these “Race to the Top” funds are awarded for performance toward four goals, none of which mandate increased funding.
Regardless of which of their pockets is picked, taxpayers will pay more only because of an education system that is virtually unaccountable for its spending. Until school districts begin to spend money wisely, local and state taxes will continue to skyrocket, as they have for decades. These are the facts that no bus tour and “mis-education” campaign can ignore.
Christopher Dodds is a Research Fellow with the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), a public policy education and research institute located in Harrisburg.