The impending debate over state education funding comes down to a single word: Sustainability.
Ever since Gov. Tom Corbett cut education funding in the state budget, school districts have been tapping reserve funds to bridge the gap.
But those funds are being squeezed, and, in a statement released last Tuesday, Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, said the trend is “unsustainable” and could lead to “large structural deficits” for school districts.
There is some hope for public schools. The Republican-controlled state Senate has been working on an alternative to the governor’s budget. Approved by a vote of 39 to 8 earlier this month, it would restore $517 million in state funding without raising taxes.
Corbett, a Republican, has said little about the Senate proposal other than to call it “unsustainable.”
Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre, said increased funding in the Senate proposal comes from higher-than-expected tax revenue. Corbett’s reluctance to criticize the plan, however, suggests he may be amenable to the Senate version.
As it now stands, the governor’s proposal would force schools to make drastic changes.
State associations of School Business Officials and School Administrators released a survey of 281 districts that found that, in 2012-13, 60 percent of the districts intend to increase class sizes; 58 percent intend to reduce art, music and physical-education classes; 37 percent are cutting tutoring programs and more than one-third are eliminating summer school.
School transportation also is impacted under the governor’s plan. The transportation segment of the budget is a major concern for rural districts. Not only do buses move children long distances, they do so safely.
Providing transportation also increases attendance. The Pennsylvania School Bus Association, citing an example of a school district in Tennessee where transportation funds were cut, predicted a spike in student absenteeism and achievement unless transportation funding is restored.
Solanco School District in Lancaster County has discussed creating central bus pick-up locations and has even proposed paying parents a stipend to drive their children to school.
Schools clearly cannot tap reserve funds forever. Using reserve funds could ultimately affect school districts’ bond ratings. The lower a school district’s bond rating, the higher the interest rate.
Public school funding also is being diverted to charter and cyber schools.
Although the Senate plan improves the governor’s budget, it still falls short of what is needed. At most, it offers a buffer for the 2012-20 school year.
Unless education funding is increased, the future of public education in this state may well become unsustainable.