Harrisburg Happenings: June 27, 2016
There is no greater responsibility of the Pennsylvania General Assembly than to invest in the future of this Commonwealth and that future begins and ends in public education.
As the final bell rang signaling the end of this school year for Erie's Public Schools (EPS), some fear that will be the last sound heard in many of those halls. This community has learned just how grave the financial situation is facing EPS. Some are surprised; but not those who have defiantly opposed this Commonwealth's recurring disinvestment in public education.
Erie joins districts like Scranton, York, Allentown, and Reading facing similar challenges due to chronic underfunding by the Commonwealth, cutting their way to balanced budgets year after year and raising revenue on the backs of local property owners. Citing how much has already been eliminated, Erie School District Superintendent Jay Badams adamantly refuses to take one more thing from the almost 13,000 students served by the district. Instead, he's proposing that the school board adopt an unbalanced budget to stave off the last round of catastrophic cuts.
How can you blame him for being protective of our students, for wanting them to have all of the same opportunities that students in surrounding districts have? For slamming his fist on the table, tears in his eyes, heart heavy, and voice shaking in defiance of a political atmosphere that doesn't value equal opportunity? For wanting his children – all 12,700 of them – to be the best versions of themselves that they can be?
I don't blame him. I joined him in this fight the day I took office. The gloves are off, and I'll swing until I can't swing anymore.
In early June, over 100 students, teachers, and community members representing EPS converged on Harrisburg with one clear message: Erie matters. Making the five hour trip from the northernmost corner of the Commonwealth via two chartered buses, the contingent rallied in the rotunda in support of public education funding and equal opportunity across zip codes. More convincing than the almost 25 legislators, my colleagues, who stood in solidarity with our plight was the small voice of an eight-year-old girl who wanted the schools to be open so that her little sister could get an education just like she was able to do.
This rally came on the heels of a report released by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials outlining the fiscal challenges facing districts statewide. Eighty-five percent of districts surveyed plan to raise taxes this coming fiscal year and 30 percent of them plan to do so above the Act 1 index. Also, 50 percent plan to reduce or eliminate academic and extracurricular programs, while 46 percent plan to reduce staff and 73 percent will increase elementary class sizes.
Clearly, the implications of this disinvestment are real and immediate. They are felt by every student, every teacher, every parent, and every citizen. They are woven into the strength of Pennsylvania's economy and our ability to compete in the national and global marketplace.
What school districts are facing is simply a microcosm of the struggles of the Commonwealth as a whole. Legislators who make pledges to their constituencies that they will "never raise taxes" are being less than truthful; by not generating revenue for the Commonwealth, they are implicit in forcing school districts to raise taxes to cover costs. And by not voting to address revenue, this Commonwealth is facing an almost $2 billion structural deficit.
Our credit rating has been downgraded, impacting our ability as a Commonwealth to borrow money. This is not quantum physics; our expenditures outweigh our income. Until that is more balanced, our deficit will continue to grow.
In making education a priority, members of the General Assembly on both sides of the aisle must summon the political will necessary to make tough decisions. Unquestionably, we must address revenue, and in a way that doesn't further burden the Pennsylvania homeowner.
It is always interesting to me to speak directly with constituents about issues such as this. Nine times out of 10, they say they would be willing to pay a little more out of their pockets if it meant good things for the Commonwealth.
People get it – they understand that the highest quality programs and services for our most vulnerable cost money. They understand that our children deserve the same educational opportunities as children in neighboring states, and that preparing a 21st century workforce right here in Pennsylvania requires the highest quality education possible.
If Pennsylvania is going to compete, we need to stay competitive.
If the General Assembly learned anything over the course of the 262 day budget impasse, I think it was that the public will not stand for that type of governing – nor should they. Additionally, Gov. Wolf threw decades-worth of much needed reform into the soup all at once, and it couldn't be digested in that manner; but it has been assimilated in smaller chunks. We have proven that bipartisan cooperation is possible in the best interests of this Commonwealth.
I'm hopeful the lessons learned by the General Assembly and the administration will be heeded. For fiscal year 2016-2017, we get another bite at the apple, another chance to blend the advocacies of our constituencies with the overall needs of this Commonwealth.
The past doesn't hold the answers to the challenges facing Erie's Public Schools – or many other districts statewide, or the Commonwealth as a whole.
If we want something we've never had, we have to do something we've never done. And we have to have the guts to actually *do it.
Senator Sean D. Wiley can be contacted at SenatorWiley@pasenate.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @SenatorWiley.