Amid widespread concern over school-funding cuts, a majority of Pennsylvania voters would be willing to pay higher taxes to reverse them, a poll released Monday said.
The statewide poll said 78 percent of those questioned were concerned about public school funding, 48 percent "very concerned." The rates were higher for women, with 85 percent expressing concern for schools and 55 percent saying they were "very concerned."
Overall, 55 percent of respondents said that they believed the schools were in crisis and that Gov. Corbett and the Republican-controlled legislature should act to prevent staff from being laid off, programs ended, and class sizes increased.
"Elected officials should carefully examine the fact that all voters, and especially women who vote, are as concerned about the cuts to public schools as they are about the economy," said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth.
"That's a remarkable change in public opinion and speaks to a very high level of public concern for what's happening to our schools," Cooper said.
Her Philadelphia-based children's advocacy organization, which commissioned the poll with the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, is a nonpartisan policy research project based in Harrisburg.
The telephone survey of 604 men and women who said they were likely to vote in the 2014 general election was conducted from Wednesday through Sunday. The survey was handled by Lake Research Partners, a national firm based in Washington, that does polling for advocacy groups, nonprofits, and unions. The phone survey has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
The results were released as lawmakers hunker down in Harrisburg this week to come up with a new state budget before the Sunday deadline and as districts in Philadelphia, Allentown, and elsewhere prepare to lay off staff.
Sharon Ward, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, said it was clear that news of layoffs, school closings, and program cuts "has penetrated the public consciousness in Pennsylvania."
"Across the commonwealth," she said, "schools have had to increase class size, cut full-day kindergarten, music and the arts, all changes that the public doesn't like and would be willing to pay more to avoid."
Education advocates from across the state are set to rally at the Capitol on Tuesday to call for what they see as "full, fair funding" for public schools.
The poll found that in order to restore $1 billion in state aid cut two years ago, more than half the respondents - 55 percent - would be willing to support increasing the state sales tax from 6 percent to 6.25 percent and postponing corporate tax breaks as long as the money went into a dedicated trust for schools. Thirty-six percent were opposed.
Fifty-four percent said they would favor boosting the state income tax rate from 3.07 percent to 3.30 percent to help the schools. Again, 36 percent said no.
Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research, which has conducted polls across the country, said it was surprising that voters in Pennsylvania - a state traditionally opposed to tax increases - would consider raising them.
Only 30 percent of respondents agreed with the argument that Corbett has already increased funding and the state cannot afford $1 billion more for schools.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman (R., Centre) said last week he would be willing to consider a freeze in a planned business-tax phaseout - for the so-called capital stock and franchise tax - to free dollars that could be redirected to public schools.
Corbett's administration and city and state officials last week said they were trying to assemble a funding package that could funnel as much as $100 million more to the Philadelphia School District, which is facing a $304 million shortfall. But the money could be contingent on the district's obtaining concession from unions.
Asked for the governor's comment on the poll, Janet Kelley, a spokeswoman, Monday reiterated his support for education in a statement: "Education has always been and continues to be one of Gov. Tom Corbett's top priorities, as is evident by the fact that the largest portion of our state budget - more than 41 cents of every tax dollar - is earmarked for education."
Every year since taking office, Corbett has increased funding for basic education, Kelley said. "This year's proposed budget invests $11.7 billion in early, basic, and higher education. It will increase the state's support of public schools by $341 million." She said that includes $90 million more for basic education, with nearly $60 million extra for Philadelphia schools.
Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. is seeking $60 million more from the city and $120 million from the state. He also wants $133 million in labor concessions, mostly from the teachers' union.