Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2021 budget proposal put education at its center, featuring an extra $1.5 billion for public schools paid for by raising personal income taxes. While officials say the plan includes tax credits that would exempt two-thirds of Pennsylvanians from the tax bump, Republican state legislators immediately pushed back against what they declared a middle-class tax increase.

» READ MORE: Gov. Tom Wolf wants to raise Pa. income taxes and give $1.5 billion more to schools

The Inquirer turned to the head of a teacher development nonprofit and a Commonwealth Foundation leader to debate: Should the legislature approve Gov. Wolf’s plan for education funding?

Yes: Dramatically underfunded schools are bad for Pennsylvania’s students and future.

By Laura Boyce

Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal for a historic investment in Pennsylvania’s schools is welcome news to the students of Eileen Broderick, one of the Philadelphia teachers I work with through Teach Plus, a teacher leadership nonprofit. Eileen’s school, Alexander McClure Elementary, shutdown multiple times last year due to asbestos, even before the pandemic. The School District of Philadelphia has acknowledged that without additional funding, it cannot address all of its buildings’ known environmental remediation needs. Now, as Philadelphia schools prepare to reopen for lower elementary grades, some teachers and families worry about poor ventilation. Most families have opted out of in-person education, particularly at economically disadvantaged schools.

Due to chronic underfunding, the School District of Philadelphia can’t afford the newer buildings and more costly facilities upgrades that allowed many suburban districts to return to in-person instruction last fall. One of Eileen’s former students, a third grader, said she wasn’t sure if students of color like herself were being treated the same as others based on her experiences over the past year. This year she hoped that would change.

A recent analysis found Pennsylvania’s schools are underfunded by at least $4.6 billion. Increases in state funding have been dwarfed by rising mandated costs for districts, from special education to charter reimbursements to pensions. Our state ranks 44th nationwide for state share of education funding compared with local spending, exacerbating inequities between low-wealth and high-wealth communities. While the state’s equitable fair funding formula takes into account factors like poverty and disability, a “hold harmless” provision means that only 11% of total education funding is distributed using it.

As a result, students of color, low-income students, and English language learners are disproportionately likely to attend schools in the fast-growing districts most underfunded by the state. By distributing most money through the formula, the governor’s proposal addresses the needs of these districts without reducing funding for any district.

» READ MORE: How a new tax like Arizona’s could help underfunded schools in Pa. | Opinion

Philadelphia is one of the big losers under the state’s current system, with an estimated shortfall of $5,583 per student. But other districts across the commonwealth are suffering and face increasingly dire budget crises. Through the program I direct at Teach Plus, I work with teachers from Scranton, Erie, Pottstown, Harrisburg, and all over the state. I’ve heard heartbreaking stories of beloved teachers and aides laid off, arts and extracurricular programs slashed, students crammed into overcrowded classrooms, and toxic buildings making students and staff sick with leaking asbestos and lead. The pandemic has only increased district costs and student needs while local tax revenue has declined.

“We can invest now in our schools — or pay more later to address the effects of higher dropout, unemployment, and crime.”

Laura Boyce

Some claim the price tag and revenue increase in Gov. Wolf’s budget are too steep. But balking at the costs to repair a broken system is like bemoaning the costs of a car whose maintenance has been neglected for years: ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. It will just get worse and more expensive.

Frederick Douglass said: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” We can invest now in our schools — or pay more later to address the effects of higher dropout, unemployment, and crime. Continuing to systematically underinvest in education is not only devastating for students and families but also has disastrous implications for Pennsylvania’s future economy and tax base by limiting huge portions of our future workforce from realizing their full potential.

Gov. Wolf’s proposal demonstrates the true respect all our students deserve — and which even third graders can see they’ve until now been denied. It’s time for our legislators to acknowledge the gravity of our school funding crisis and take the bold, necessary steps toward an adequate and equitable system.

Laura Boyce is the Pennsylvania executive director of Teach Plus. lboyce@teachplus.org

No: It won’t help to pour more money into a system that’s not working.

By Jennifer Stefano

To recover from the academic havoc caused by COVID-19, Pennsylvania kids and their families need one thing: a choice in where their education dollars go. Here’s what Gov. Tom Wolf is giving them instead: a nearly 50% income tax increase, taking a chunk of parents’ take-home pay, along with a future of lost opportunities when businesses flee the state to avoid tax hikes.

Wolf is using our children and their legitimate educational needs to justify a tax-and-spend agenda that’s unfair and unwarranted. The majority of districts already have plenty of funding to meet their budgetary needs, with some districts padding their reserve funds during the pandemic.

Yet, based on the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials’ “worst-case scenario” for declining local tax revenues, 95% of state districts would remain financially healthy and have extra money in the bank — even without Wolf’s spending increase. How? Many districts padded their reserve funds with more than $3 billion in federal emergency funding.

As the Commonwealth Foundation estimates, reserve funds in Philadelphia’s district alone, for example, have increased from $103 million pre-pandemic to $750 million thereafter. Is Wolf trying to argue that we pour more money into a district that refuses to send teachers back to the classroom and has failed low-income children for decades? Yes, he is. This, as lawmakers held K-12 funding levels steady last year.

» READ MORE: Pa. has a chance to reform our struggling schools. Will the legislature let it happen? | Opinion

You may ask why it appears that certain districts don’t have enough money. The answer: the money is in the wrong hands. Instead of money following the child — and parents controlling where and how the money is spent — the dollars sit in an antiquated bureaucracy that’s beholden to public teachers’ unions. If Wolf has his way, that’s exactly where the money will keep going. One could point to the political support that Wolf enjoys from teachers’ unions, but regardless of why this special interest backs the governor, they remain on board to have more money fed into a system that’s not currently serving children.

According to a recent report, 43% of state districts are fully remote. Many public school children haven’t set foot in a classroom since last March. In many cases, remote education isn’t working — especially for lower-income and some minority students.

That’s especially true in Greater Philadelphia. Concerned parents who filed public information requests found that almost 9% of ninth-grade students in West Chester Area School District — and 26% of minority ninth graders — are now failing two or more classes, an increase of 850% since last year.

“If Wolf really wants fairness, he should support education options that parents are lining up for.”

Jennifer Stefano

Meanwhile, despite the pandemic, children who attend nonpublic schools have remained in the classroom since last fall, and not necessarily because their schools have more money. For Catholic schools, which often serve lower-income urban families, the average tuition is lower than the average cost of a public school education: $4,000 for elementary and $7,500 for high school, according to the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

Shouldn’t those parents and students whose lives have been disrupted by schools closed to in-person instruction be offered alternatives? Wolf seems to think not. He proposed zero aid to struggling families, only more money for districts.

If Wolf really wants fairness, he should support education options that parents are lining up for. Every year, more than 40,000 students are denied tax credit scholarships, which help families afford private school, and thousands more sit on waiting lists for seats at charter schools. Working parents do not deserve to lose more money to the government while it also denies our children options and opportunity.

Jennifer Stefano is the vice president and chief strategy officer of the Commonwealth Foundation. She is the vice chair of Broad & Liberty.

Read more Inquirer Pro/Cons: