Guest Column: It’s time to fix education funding in Pa.
Friday, September 2, 2016
The problem of ever-increasing school property taxes is a major challenge for many residents in our community. The property tax burden puts pressure on hard-working families struggling to raise their children and balance their household budgets. Seniors on fixed incomes struggle to make ends meet while paying growing property tax bills. Far too often escalating property taxes force local seniors from their longtime homes.
The property tax issue, however, is not a universal problem across the state. In fact, in many counties in central and western Pennsylvania, school property taxes are far lower than in communities throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania. Here in Delaware County, residents pay roughly 2 percent of their home value in property taxes. In many counties in western Pennsylvania, that tax rate is typically between 1 and 1.5 percent.
The reason is a fundamentally flawed formula used by the state to calculate the amount of state funding individual school districts receive. That calculation contains what has been called a “hold harmless” provision, adopted in 1991, that guarantees school districts will receive at a minimum the same amount of state funding for education as they did the prior year.
As a result of this misguided policy change, school districts that saw their student enrollment drop did not see any decline in state aid. Districts were getting the same amount of money from the state – to educate a declining number of students.
Most of the districts with shrinking student bodies are in the western part of the state, while school districts in our region have seen enrollment increases. Twenty-five years of flawed policy in Harrisburg has brought us where we are today: Delaware County homeowners forced to pay far more than their fair share of education funding.
For example, the Marple Newtown School District received $784 per student from the state, Springfield received $718 per student, and Radnor received $523 per student for basic education. In other words, 12 to 15 percent of the education funding for these schools comes from the state.
Meanwhile, Purchase Line School District in Indiana County receives $8,986 per student in state basic education money. About 72 percent of its spending per student comes from the state – instead of its own property taxpayers. Smethport Area School District in McKean County receives $7,247 per student in state funding – more than 10 times the amount a student in Springfield School District receives.
Not all school districts should receive the same funding per student – each district is unique and has different needs and challenges. But the formula as it stands today just isn’t working for Delaware County taxpayers.
Earlier this year, the Legislature announced the adoption of a new “Fair Funding Formula” to more equitably distribute state education dollars. But the Legislature only applied the formula to new state education funding that is over and above last year’s levels. That means only $150 million out of nearly $6 billion in state basic education funding will be distributed using the new “fair funding” formula. And it means just a $23 to $34 increase in state funding per student in Marple Newtown, Springfield, and Radnor School districts.
Given the geographic division among state representatives and senators on this issue, simply accomplishing this much of a change represented a monumental accomplishment from Delaware County’s existing state legislators who have worked for years to correct this inequity. While the victory marked movement on an issue that has festered for far too long, we need to do more.
If I am elected to the state Legislature I will make it a top priority to work with other counties in our region to build a coalition that will fight for immediate, meaningful change. The Legislature needs to take the next step and apply the Fair Funding Formula across the board to the entire $6 billion in basic education funding, effective immediately. That will provide real and immediate property tax relief for many residents in Delaware County and will ensure our local students are not being shortchanged by the state.
It’s only fair. And it’s far past time for the Legislature to fix the problem.
Alex Charlton of Springfield is the Republican candidate for state representative in the 165th Legislative District.