A pair of bills now making the rounds of the General Assembly may revolutionize Pennsylvaniaâ€™s schools and Pennsylvaniaâ€™s taxes. They would bag the historic tradition of funding education with a mix of local property taxes and largesse from the Commonwealthâ€™s General Fund. In their place, school districts would draw from dedicated income and sales taxes â€“ some at a statewide level, others voted in locally.
In one stroke, the most-contentious issue dominating politics and policies across the state would be transformed, with new winners â€“ and new losers. Would this change be for the better?
SB 76 is authored by the chairmen of the Urban Affairs & Housing Committee, David Argall (R-Schuylkill) and Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny). These leaders claim 22 cosponsors in the 50-member Senate â€“ 12 Republicans and 10 Democrats. A companion bill, HB 76, has been introduced by State Rep. Jim Cox (R-Berks).
Touted as the â€œProperty Tax Independence Actâ€, this bold measure would do two things, each of which is remarkable by itself. First, it would provide a way for municipalities to cease taxing property entirely. If they willed it, they would be empowered to raise revenue entirely by voting for local income and sales taxes to fund schools â€“ or any other local-government purpose. The burden of taxation would shift from owners and dwellers, to earners and consumers.
At the state level, new income and sales taxes would also be imposed which would be dedicated solely to fund k-12 education. The new income tax (1.27%) and sales tax (1%) would be placed in a new Education Stability Fund. This ESF is designed to take the place of the present Basic Education Fund, which delivers the core of the state component of school spending. But the BEF has no guaranteed income of its own. Each fiscal year it must do battle with a hundred other hungry mouths clamoring for a piece of the budget. In recent years it has often come up sucking the short straw.
So SB 76 might just as well be called the â€œSchool Funding Independence Actâ€. Under its provisions, all school districts could engage in stable long-term planning around their state funding base, free from political vagaries in Harrisburg.
How money is collected matters. But how much is collected matters more. An initial check of SB 76â€™s language suggests that had it been in effect in the last fiscal year, it would have boosted basic education spending from $5.5 billion to $6.7 billion. That extra $1.2 billion would fill a lot of holes in many school budgets â€“ not the least of them Philadelphiaâ€™s.
Among other things, SB 76 would change the entire dynamic of the brutally contentious AVI debate in Philadelphia. Of your property tax, 55% goes to support the School District. If that money were to come through other channels, then the widespread increases in many homeownersâ€™ taxes (sometimes doubling) which are scheduled to bite in next year â€“ would go away!
None of which means this radical reform is a good thing. The devil lies in the details of this 137-page piece of legislation. The BEF does not account for all state education spending today. If the ESF is used to replace useful supplementary funding programs, schools will not see net gains.
And shifting the pain of taxation does not eliminate it. Voters will be asked to choose whether theyâ€™d rather see their home, or their paycheck and their checkout-counter receipt, taxed.
In addition, vastly expanding taxation options at the school-district level would pose â€œtaxingâ€ new demands on local tax-collection agencies (not to mention citizensâ€™ tax-preparers). If nothing else, property-tax management is fairly stable, low-cost, public and easily tracked (except in Philadelphia, it appears â€¦ but thatâ€™s another story.)
But our traditional way of paying for education isnâ€™t working well â€“ especially for Philadelphia, whose property-tax base is in no shape to deal with the extra costs of educating children most of whom live in poverty. You canâ€™t squeeze blood from a stone.
In the long run, the main burden of funding public education should be shifted to the State. Local-government levies can fund extra amenities for local schools if their citizens wish, but all core educational needs should properly be paid for out of the broadest-possible tax base. When a poor child needs a physician, we do not fund this chiefly out of a poor communityâ€™s pocket. Why do otherwise when a poor child needs a teacher?
Our General Assembly delegation must take a close look at the Argall-Brewster legislation to see if it offers an escape hatch from some of our School Districtâ€™s woes.