Better school funding: how we can do it
By John B. Kelly
Democratic Candidate for Philadelphia City Council At-Large
During the campaign, I’ve heard a lot of good ideas about what would improve our schools. Of course, these require funding. What I have not heard much is how we are going to pay for this.
Our children deserve the same educational opportunities as those in the neighboring districts. They are Pennsylvanians, and must be treated equally to the rest of Pennsylvania.
The Commonwealth Court agrees. It has recently ruled that the current funding system is unconstitutional; that it’s not meeting the constitutional requirement to provide a “thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” Two studies cited by Chalkbeat Philadelphia put specific numbers on this: our children are being cheated out of $4,976 per student, per year.
A fair funding system which treats Pennsylvania students equally would require an additional $1.1 billion per year in Philadelphia’s school system. The bulk of this should come from Harrisburg, with the city finding some additional sources as well.
Improving our schools will improve our children’s lives, and increase opportunities for a better future. It will reduce crime. It will make the city more attractive for businesses that want educated workers and a strong middle class as customers.
Relative to our neighbors, the city population is already overtaxed. But due to the disparity in wealth, our higher tax rates generate less revenue for our schools. The money must come from Harrisburg, and a few select local sources:
- State funding: full implementation of the Fair Funding Formula
- PILOT payments from universities and hospitals
- Elimination of Real Estate Development Tax Abatements
Pennsylvania ranks 50th in the United States on using state education money to level the per-student funding across the districts. The Commonwealth Court ruling creates an incredible opportunity to fix this. We must drive a Teamster truck through this opening.
This is a political process. We must get a majority of the state legislature to adopt a fair funding formula that will level out the disparity in local resources.
It may feel like Philadelphia is alone in this, but there are 150 other school districts in PA that are underfunded and would receive more under the fair funding formula. Council At-Large members and City administration members must reach out and build a coalition with these school districts and their legislators so we can increase our leverage. We need to build relationships.
For decades, the Republicans in Harrisburg have been pitting low-income rural people against low-income urban people. We must change the narrative so that state legislators see how a fair funding formula ultimately benefits all Pennsylvanians.
Current city leadership is too narrowly focused within Philadelphia. We must see ourselves as part of Pennsylvania, and we have to remind the rest of the Commonwealth that Philadelphians are also Pennsylvanians.
New Local Funding
While a fair and equitable distribution of state funds will solve many of our problems, the city also needs to increase its support to put our children on a level playing field.
Elimination of the Real Estate Tax Abatements: A tax abatement is a tax exemption given to developers to encourage investment. While investment in the City is desirable, the abatement has become an unacceptable subsidy of gentrification, which pushes long-term city residents out of their homes. Because 55% of our real estate tax goes to the School District, the abatement deprives our children of the investment in their future. 55 cents of every abatement dollar is being taken from our children’s education.
Payments In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOTs) are fees charged to tax-exempt public institutions like universities and hospitals to ensure they are paying for public services. One of the nation’s best PILOT programs has been implemented in Boston as a voluntary program, and it is now becoming mandatory.
Universities, state and federal offices, and other public organizations should participate in funding the city and its school district. They use city streets, they get fire protection, they get police protection, and their employees send their kids to Philadelphia School District schools, just like any other business. Ultimately, these institutions would benefit from having a better educated pool of workers to hire from. No one likes to pay taxes, but it is in our self-interest to do so to fund schools. A better-educated population benefits all of us.
Poverty is expensive for the Commonwealth, whether it is in Philadelphia, or anywhere else across Pennsylvania. It increases the state’s costs for welfare, Medicaid, and lost tax revenue.
It is in the self-interest of all Pennsylvanians to invest in all the Commonwealth’s children. My job will be to help them understand this, and to see Philadelphians as Pennsylvanians.
As your Councilperson, I will work on this every day. It is an existential effort for Philadelphia’s future. Through investing in our children’s education we can end multi-generational poverty. Through well-funded after-school programs we can end crime amongst our teens and young adults. Through an educated workforce we can attract and keep the businesses that will fuel our growth. And we must show our next generation that they matter to us by providing them with an education equal to that provided to our fellow Pennsylvanians.