5 Questions: How to Increase PA Education Funding

Sen. Larry Farnese and Senate Democrats want a $300 million hike.

Sen. Larry Farnese

Sen. Larry Farnese

Today, Pennsylvania Senate Democrats are holding a press conference to announce their intention to seek $300 million in new spending on public education—this after nearly a billion dollars has been cut from the state ed budget in recent years. During that time, they say, Pennsylvania students have dropped from 25th to 37th in the country on college exam scores.

Sen. Larry Farnese, a Philadelphia Democrat, will be part of today’s events. He talked with Philly Mag about the proposal this week. Some excerpts:

1. Okay, first of all, Senate Democrats are going to be offering a new proposal to restore funding to education throughout the state. Tell me about the bill. How big is it? What’s it gonna do?

One of the topics that we’re gonna be talking about on Thursday is a topic that Senate Democrats have been speaking about and advocating for increased funding for for years now and that is, specifically, the $900 million dollars, almost a billion dollars that have been cut by this administration in public education funding and classroom education funding since its inception.

So, we’re gonna be talking about those cuts and how we believe that we can restore those cuts, this year specifically calling for a $300 million dollar investment. It’s just basically a first step to restore that billion dollars that we have seen devastate public education from the ground up, and we’re hoping that this year the Senate Republicans will be willing to work with us to implement some of these programs.

2. Like you say, about a billion dollars has been cut from state education spending in recent years. The Philadelphia District alone had to cut a $304 million deficit just to get the schools open this year. So, $300 million sounds like a big number, but is it going to be able to make much of a dent in the problem this year?

Well again, that’s why I say to you, it’s a first step. I mean, you’re talking about a billion dollars in devastating cuts. We’re hoping to restore the first $300 million of this and it’s a first-step process. When you cut a billion dollars from public education funding like this administration has while at the same time giving significant tax cuts to corporations … when you make policy decisions like that, you are undercutting one of the most important assets we have in this commonwealth and that’s our future. So, we believe that starting off with a $300 million dollar investment is a first step and a very smart and wise first step and we’re hoping that the administration sees that and follows our lead.

2a. How many years might it take to kinda get back up to parity?

Well, I mean I think many of us are hoping, you know, within the next couple of years. Hopefully by three years, we’re gonna see a full restoration.

3. I understand the plan involves restorations to a lot of items in education spending including accountability cutblock grants, charter reimbursement, tutoring, early learning and special education. Are regular public school classrooms going to see much of the money or is this down payment about shoring up some of the weak areas?

Well, I think it’s gonna be across-the-board restoration. I think you’re gonna see an increase in funding for public education across the board. But again, I mean, I think that there’s no question that these cuts disproportionally hurt poorer school districts like Philadelphia. Most (funding) restorations that have been made over the last two years have provided disproportionate relief to wealthier schools and a small number of hand-picked Republican school districts. We’re not looking to make Republican districts weaker and put funding into the Democratic districts. We’re not looking at those type of party lines. We’re looking to increase funding across the board to give kids the best possible opportunities they have to be successful.

4. You face a couple factors too though, in that A) the state is facing a million dollar budget deficit and B) you have a governor and a Republican party that have sworn off raising taxes. So how do you pay for this?

Some of the things we’re gonna do is to basically freeze the capital stock franchise tax phase-out. Basically, what it will do is it’s going to freeze the phase out at $75 million. And, again, I can go through a lot of these different ways that we’re gonna do this, but any of those tax breaks to large corporations, which has become a staple of this administration, that’s what we’re gonna go after. It’s ludicrous to believe that we’re giving tax cuts to big corporations while allowing these cuts to affect public education. So we’re gonna be looking at that. We’re gonna look at enhanced tax collection, over $55 million, enhanced collection of the liquid debt through the federal, state and local partnerships. You know, we talked about this a few years ago as well too. I mean, a lot of our programs are a combination of state and federal partnerships, leveraging existing federal funds to increase a greater distribution of existing state money. So, we’re looking for, I think, an aggressive program to get public education back on track because, over the last several years, it’s dropped significantly and we’re paying the price as a state.

5. We’re kind of obsessed in Philly here with the problems of our own school district, understandably I think. But the cuts of recent years have taken a toll on schools throughout the state. Do you think that the fact that the pain has been spread so widely is going to help you find allies in this rebuilding effort?

Well, I think we already do have allies. And, again, this is not a Republican and Democratic issue. I mean, there are school districts around the state that are feeling significant burdens now because of the tax cuts and it’s because of the education cuts. I think that we do have allies around the state and I think this is a problem you’re seeing around the country. I think it’s an ideology that has been undertaken by extreme right-wing administrations like this one and are led by a belief that the way to cut spending is to balance budgets on the backs of poor people and those less fortunate. That is not the way that you build an economy and that is not the way that you govern.

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