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Only a fair tax system will fully fund Pa. public schools

By March 12, 2015January 15th, 2016No Comments

See piece published in The Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

A week after Gov. Wolf’s budget address, we’re seeing reactions from all sides to the governor’s proposal — some celebratory and some critical.

Members of POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild), an interfaith organization that has prioritized the fight for full funding for our schools, have been watching this debate as it unfolds and assessing what it means for our children. As people of faith committed to a prophetic critique of “the world as it is,” we must speak truth about what is being left unsaid. When it comes to the funding of our schools, economic inequality and education inequality in Pennsylvania are intertwined — and we are not moving fast enough to fix it.

In his proposal, the governor has taken an important first step toward prioritizing public education by asking for a dramatic increase in school funding. But his proposal is far from the “promised land.” Although we applaud any boost to education, the $400 million increase he wants for basic education spending is not nearly enough for districts statewide to restore reasonable class sizes, art, music, nurses, libraries, and other essentials for our children that many districts have cut back on or cut completely.

The recommendations for spending on individual districts, publicly available on the state government’s website, also do little to correct racial inequities in how funds are distributed. Fifty years out from Brown v. Board of Education, this is unacceptable.

In the longer term, Wolf is looking to increase preK-12 funding by $2 billion over four years. But according to research from the Campaign for Fair Education Funding, we need $3.6 billion over four years to adequately fund Pennsylvania’s schools. That is no small difference. Such a vision is a must for our children and the health of Pennsylvania’s future.

The governor and legislature must take bold leadership to transform our unfair tax system, or else we will simply never have enough revenue to fully fund our schools.

For decades, Pennsylvania’s politicians have prioritized tax cuts for the wealthy and permitted corporations to shirk their responsibilities to the state. Under the current system, prosperous corporations have together avoided billions in tax contributions, a CEO pays the same state income tax rate as a dishwasher, and lowest-income earners pay three times more as a share of their income than those who earn the most.

Wolf has taken some steps toward tax reform in his budget. But action must be bolder to undo years of corporate favoritism and stress on middle- and low-income families. Otherwise, we will keep seeing excuses about why we cannot direct more resources to our schools and continue to be forced to accept trade-offs on the backs of those who are already struggling.

The myth of scarcity that we live with is particularly painful when communities of color are consistently given the short end of an already-too-short stick. As POWER has already shown, there is a clear racial bias in how we distribute funds to our school districts, with predominantly White districts favored. We need a funding formula that will make this racist system a thing of the past, a formula that will unquestionably value children of all colors. We pray that as they craft a formula to fund public education, our lawmakers will ask themselves, “Do Black lives matter? Do brown lives matter?”

If we do the right thing and envision a public education system that lifts up those whom we have left out and disinvested in for generations, it’s good for all of us. When corporations and the uber-wealthy have been funded on the backs of Pennsylvania’s schools and families for too long, a struggling White family in Lancaster or Erie has far more in common with a struggling Black family in North Philly than they do with a CEO making out like a bandit in the system as it is.

Only a grassroots movement across our state that recognizes the ways in which our destinies are intertwined and what our families have in common has the possibility of creating the radical change we need.

This spring, POWER and its faith-based partners across the state will be praying, mobilizing and acting for a fair formula that funds our schools fully without disproportionately burdening our families. After years of underfunding and cuts past the bone, our kids just can’t wait any longer.