We have a budget for 2016-2017. What does it mean for schools?

The 2016-2017 PA budget is now complete. Yesterday a bipartisan group of lawmakers from the PA House and Senate approved a revenue package and Governor Wolf signed it into law. But what does it mean for our schools?

This budget provides an increase of $200 million for K-12 Basic Education Funding, $20 million for special education, and $30 million for early childhood education programs.

Although this budget fails to provide the increase in K-12 funding than Governor Wolf requested and it falls far short of what Pennsylvania’s public school children need, it is important to recognize how important our advocacy efforts have been this year.

Legislative leaders listened to the concerns of parents and community members (your phone calls and emails!) and decided not to push through charter school legislation as part of the budget process.  It is critical that the PA legislature gets charter school reform right, and we applaud legislators for understanding that it was simply impossible to get charter school reform legislation right in the compressed time frame of budget negotiations. We expect them to revisit the issue in the fall.

In addition, lawmakers faced a $1.3 billion deficit in the 2016-2017 budget and did not make cuts in school funding, but instead raised revenues in order to provide schools with a modest increase. Although the revenue package lawmakers passed did not solve Pennsylvania’s long-term fiscal problems, as the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center notes, it was not easy for many lawmakers to vote to raise revenues.

Schools desperately need the $200 million increase in state funding this year, however, state-mandated cost increases for school districts for 2016-2017 far exceed $200 million. As a result, even with a $200 million increase, the 2016-2017 budget continues to load the cost of educating children in public schools onto the shoulders of local communities, pushing school districts farther and farther away from adequate levels of funding that are necessary to meet students’ needs.

An annual survey of school districts that was recently completed by the PA Association of School Administrators (PASA) and the PA Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) found that even with a $200 million increase in Basic Education Funding, 85% of school districts surveyed will raise local taxes, 50% will cut programming, 46% will reduce staff and 34% expect class sizes to increase. Many school districts will struggle simply to survive this year.

Looking forward, we need to demand better from our state government. Lawmakers must support new, recurring and sustainable sources of revenue to make the critical investments in school funding that Pennsylvanians want and that our children need.  Our children cannot afford another Band-Aid budget to put on schools that are hemorrhaging learning opportunities throughout the Commonwealth.

In the absence of political will in Harrisburg to adequately fund our schools, we were encouraged to learn that thePennsylvania Supreme Court will hear oral argument for Pennsylvania’s education funding lawsuit on September 13, 2016, in its Philadelphia courtroom. If the legislature refuses fulfill its constitutional obligation to provide for a thorough and efficient system of public education to meet the needs of the Commonwealth, then it is time for the courts to intervene. We will be sending out an email soon with more information about the school funding lawsuit.

If you are curious, here is the list of what is in the revenue package just enacted by state lawmakers and Governor Wolf:

  • CIGARETTES: Increases the per-pack excise tax on cigarettes by $1 to $2.60 to generate $430 million.
  • LOAN: Borrows $200 million from a surplus in a state medical malpractice insurance fund, to be paid by over a five-year period starting July 1, 2018.
  • WINE AND LIQUOR: Projects a month-old law liberalizing the sale of wine and liquor will generate $149 million.
  • TAX DELINQUENTS: Allows tax delinquents to pay back taxes without penalty to generate $100 million.
  • CASINO GAMBLING EXPANSION: Assumes $100 million from gambling legislation that is on hold until the fall, primarily from licensing fees for legalizing internet gambling.
  • PHILADELPHIA CASINO: Books $75 million in expected license fees from Philadelphia casino that was awarded a license in 2014.
  • SALES TAX DISCOUNT: Lowers the amount of sales tax collections that retailers may keep to generate $55 million.
  • TOBACCO: Imposes a 55-cents-per-ounce tax on roll-your-own tobacco and smokeless tobacco to generate about $50 million.
  • DIGITAL DOWNLOADS: Eliminates an exemption from the state’s 6 percent sales tax on the download of digital videos, books, games, music and applications to generate $47 million.
  • BANKS: Raises rate of shares tax on bank and trust companies to 0.95 percent, from 0.89 percent, to generate $23 million.
  • TABLE GAMES: Imposes a new 2 percent tax on casinos’ gross revenue from table games to generate $17 million.
  • INCOME TAX: Extends 3.07 percent state income tax to Pennsylvania Lottery winnings to generate $16 million.
  • ELECTRONIC CIGARETTES: Imposes a 40 percent tax on the wholesale price of electronic cigarettes, including vapor producing devices and liquid cartridges, to generate $13 million.

This is a guest post from Susan Spicka, Director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania. It was originally posted at their blog here.

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