Education Top Priority in Governor’s 2021 Budget Proposal
Gov. Wolf continued to place education at the forefront of his agenda with a his 2021 budget proposal in an effort to close the gaps in one of the least equitable school funding systems in the country, increase affordability of college education and job training.
The budget, outlined in an address on Feb. 3, would increase the commonwealth’s spending to $37 billion, which includes a $1 million increase in the Pa. Agricultural Surplus System (PASS), one of the state’s major anti-hunger programs, while flat-funding the State Food Purchase Program (SFPP).
A proposed increase in Pennsylvania’s flat personal income tax on higher earners would open 20 percent more funds, $1.5 billion, to aid public schools. WITF notes that “more than half of the money would go to 10 big urban districts — Philadelphia, Allentown, Reading, York, Scranton, Harrisburg, Wilkes-Barre, Upper Darby, Bethlehem and Erie — while fast-growing suburban districts would be among those getting the biggest percentage increase in state aid.”
Defending these increases, Wolf says, “high-quality education is the ticket to greater opportunity for our children… without it, how can we hope that our kids will be able to lead better lives than we did?”
In Wolf’s proposal, all basic education funds would go through the 2016 formula designed to direct revenue to the schools that need it most. Pennsylvania currently ranks 44th in the nation for state share of funding for public schools, meaning that property taxes are heavily relied on, exacerbating the burden and the gap between wealthy and poorer communities. By ensuring that all funds move through the state’s formula, the current $5.5 billion allocated based on 1992 enrollment data aims to move more quickly toward equity.
The governor’s budget includes level funding of $18.188 million for the State Food Purchase Program (SFPP) and a $1 million increase to $2.5 million for the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System (PASS), two of the state’s most critical anti-hunger programs. Feeding Pennsylvania and Hunger-Free Pennsylvania, however, believe that status quo funding or the return to pre-pandemic level funding could be catastrophic for those facing food insecurity.
“We are grateful for the support the commonwealth has provided to get food to our most vulnerable residents in response to the current health-care crisis and hunger epidemic. With no end in sight, however, even more help will be needed in the next fiscal year,” said Feeding Pennsylvania Executive Director Jane Clements-Smith. Since mid-March 2020 when the pandemic began, over 600,000 Pennsylvanians have struggled to find where their next meal will come from. Therefore, Feeding Pennsylvania and Hunger-Free Pennsylvania are seeking $24 million for SFPP and $5 million for PASS in the state’s 2021-22 fiscal year budget.
While the governor’s proposal attempts to provide increased support for various sectors in the commonwealth, WITF notes that the Republican majority in the legislature and their allies strongly oppose the budget. They claim that the middle-class and small businesses will suffer, citing the income tax increase and the increase in the minimum wage to $12 an hour. Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, Republican of Centre county, called the governor’s plan “completely unsustainable, totally irresponsible and absolutely crippling to the state’s economy.”
The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, though, states that low- and moderate-income families currently pay state and local taxes at about twice the amount of the wealthiest 1 percent. “By increasing the personal tax rate, while also expanding tax forgiveness for Pennsylvanians with low and moderate incomes, the state could raise more than $1 billion in new revenues, while cutting taxes for many Pennsylvanians.” Over 40 percent of Pennsylvania families will see their taxes go down and for another 27 percent it will stay the same. Only the wealthiest third of Pennsylvanians would see increases. “After decades of increasing inequality, that has been exacerbated by the pandemic, a tax proposal along these lines is overdue and should be welcomed by all of us.”
Charter school reforms also feature in the proposed budget. This includes a proposal to closely match the tuition school districts pay charter schools with charters’ actual costs. They include a flat tuition rate of $9,500 for each cyber charter regular education student and the application of the special education funding formula to all charter schools. These reforms are estimated to save school districts at least $229 million. Wolf is also proposing increased academic and fiscal accountability for the charter school sector, including statewide performance standards for charter schools, a moratorium on new cyber charters, ensuring charter operators are held to financial and ethical standards, and greater financial oversight.
With Governor Wolf’s budget now before the legislature and the public, the House Appropriations Committee will soon begin their own process of holding hearings that will lead to their own budget proposal. As the ELCA social statement Economic Life: Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All notes. “Rather than being self-sufficient, we need and depend on what God gives or provides through people, practices, and systems. ‘Daily Bread’ is not earned by efforts of individuals alone, but is made possible through a variety of relationships and institutions.”