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Increase school funding or cut it in half? How the next Pennsylvania governor could shape education

Students in Robbi Giuliano's fifth grade class sit on yoga balls as they complete their assignments at Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, in West Chester, Pa.
Matt Rourke
Students in Robbi Giuliano's fifth grade class sit on yoga balls as they complete their assignments at Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, in West Chester, Pa.

Pennsylvania has a fraught history when it comes to funding public education. The state pays a little less than half of what it costs most districts to operate. School districts rely heavily on local property taxes to make up the difference, thus creating huge gaps between what wealthy and low-income districts can offer students and staff.

The two candidates running to lead the state are perhaps even further apart in their policy and funding proposals.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano has said he wants to cut state spending by more than half, giving state funding directly to families and possibly eliminating property taxes. His Democratic opponent Josh Shapiro says he’ll follow in the footsteps of Gov. Tom Wolf, who has consistently increased school funding.

During a March radio interview, Mastriano, a state senator, said he wanted to see every student receive $9,000 or $10,000 rather than the $19,000 per student the state currently spends per student. He'd also let families choose a school.

“Public school, private school, cyber school or homeschool – the money goes to the kids. And I believe that would incentivize or drive down the cost of public education,” Mastriano said during the interview.

Mastriano’s campaign did not return requests for comment, and his campaign website does not mention an education spending plan. It does note that Mastriano, a state senator, thinks that school competition “promotes excellence” and that he’ll ensure public schools are “well-funded.” The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, went on tour last month and held 12 press conferences across the state to denounce Mastriano’s proposal, calling it “devastating” and “extreme.”

“Can you imagine what our schools would look like with half the teachers, half the staff and half the opportunities for students?” said Aaron Chapin, the vice president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, during an event in Cranberry.

A PSEA analysis found that the cuts could result in staff layoffs, increased class sizes and lost opportunities for students.

PSEA created an interactive map that estimates that districts in Allegheny County would lose anywhere from 30 to more than 50 percent of their state allocations.

The union is backing Shapiro for governor. Chapin said Shapiro, who is currently attorney general, was the only candidate to meet with the union.

Shapiro’s website says he will “fully fund” schools and make “critical investments” to attract and retain quality teachers. He also has supported plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit seeking to close funding gaps between wealthy and poor districts. Those involved say they expect a decision by the end of the year.

Despite the large increases in education funding under the Wolf administration, many claim there continue to be ongoing gaps between wealthy and poor districts.

While the state’s share of education funding is lower than most other states, Pennsylvania school districts raise and spend more than the national average. A new report from Philadelphia-based Research for Action found that students of color in Pennsylvania are far less likely to have options to attend schools with advanced placement courses and experienced teachers.

While the disparity persists across the country, Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom two states for offering equal opportunity across racial and income groups. The state has the largest opportunity gap between Hispanic and white students and the second largest gaps between Black and white students and poor students and non-poor students.

Some advocacy groups, including Pittsburgh-based A+ schools, want the next governor to wrestle with the benefits and drawbacks of relying on local property taxes. James Fogarty, executive director for A+, said the state should consider what it would take to consolidate some of the services that create financial issues for its 500 school districts, including teacher training and transportation.

“Then all of these communities can come together and share resources so that the kids from across the border that live in Sto-Rox get as much in terms of resources as the kids in Pittsburgh in the West End,” said James Fogarty, A+ Executive Director.

Getting to a more equitable system will take time, but educators and advocates say the next governor will set the tone for spending for years to come.