PSBA Legislative Report 20 September 2022:
Christopher Fee is the Pennsylvania School Board Association (PSBA) Liaison for the Upper Adams School Board. He creates a monthly report on state-wide legislative issues of importance to the board. This is his report from Sep. 20, 2022
In some ways, this year’s race for the Governor’s Office in Pennsylvania reflects traditional differences in understanding what is best for students in Pennsylvania’s public schools: Republicans have tended to focus on tax-cuts, local control, and parental choice, while Democrats characteristically favor more robust funding, more equitable distribution of resources, and more centralized governmental structure.
The current contest between Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and State Senator Doug Mastriano seems to have extended this trend, exacerbated considerably by lingering conflict over the handling of COVID in Commonwealth schools, as well as by hot-button culture wars topics such as race and gender. Nowhere is the contrast between the two candidates more stark, however, than in their stated plans for the future of funding public education in Pennsylvania.
One the one hand, both candidates speak to issues and offer positions aligned with their bases, which is no great surprise: Each is telling his core voters things those voters would like to hear. That’s politics as usual. On the other hand, it is important to remember that, while if Mr. Shapiro were to win, he would face a legislature controlled by the other party, and thus would be unlikely to have the power to achieve his vision in full, Mr. Mastriano, if victorious, might well have a majority in the legislature amenable to his agenda.
Mr. Shapiro, a member of the current Wolf administration, has indicated that he wants to continue and to extend that administration’s policies, stating that, as one outlet has reported, “he largely wants to maintain Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s education spending plan,” as well as making “funding more equitable across districts.”
By way of contrast, Mr. Mastriano’s suggestions concerning education finance reform have gotten by far the lion’s share of local, state, and national press coverage. This plays to Mr. Mastriano’s strategy of, in Forbes’s assessment, “not engaging with traditional media under any rules but his own,” while simultaneously engaging his base through social media, as reported upon by the New York Times. Mr. Mastriano has a talent for exciting that base through extreme positions that at the same time garner significant attention from the mainstream media he otherwise keeps at arms’ length.
The most relevant recent case-in-point of this media strategy involves public school funding. In a March interview, Mr. Mastriano “said that Pennsylvania should reduce per-student school funding by $10,000 annually,” indicating that he thought that an average cost of $19,000 per student could be dropped to $9,000. According to Forbes, however, “[s]ince then Mastriano has walked back that figure; in a campaign video, he suggests that the vouchers would be an average of $15,000, to be spent on ‘public school, home school, private school, religious school.’”
The backlash against this proposal was swift and has continued, with the Pennsylvania State Education Association, for example, positing that such a move would have a “devastating impact on public schools,” resulting in cuts exceeding “$12 billion — 33% of all funding,” as well as job losses of some 118,704 district employees state-wide, and doubled student-to-teacher ratios. This news story got widespread traction, and versions of it have appeared in newspaper outlets including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Centre Daily Times, the York Daily Record, the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, and the Harrisburg Patriot-News; have resulted in significant mention on radio stations including WESA in Pittsburgh and WHYY in Philadelphia; and have prompted spots on TV newscasts such as Pittsburgh’s Action News 4 and CBS News Philadelphia.
There is no arguing with the effectiveness of such a media strategy; Mr. Shapiro’s positions barely merit mention in many of these outlets. That said, the fact that Mr. Mastriano’s proposal may seem to the more jaundiced observer less of an actual educational plan and more of a rhetorical strategy that uses our children and their schools as pawns in a bid to broaden a candidate’s exposure is troubling, to say the very least. This is especially true when one analyzes the nuts-and-bolts of school funding in Pennsylvania. From the information I have been able to glean, Mr. Mastriano’s plan seems ill-advised.
Indeed, insofar as I can follow his thinking, Mr. Mastriano’s position seems to be based in large measure on a doctrine of school choice grounded in the unfortunately all-too-common misconception that “the money should follow the child.” Broadly speaking, no money at all “comes” with any child: The annual tuition rate for a given public school district is simply the yearly operating budget for direct education divided by the number of students, giving us a rough estimate of how much of that budget is dedicated to a given child. None of these children actually show up in the Upper Adams schools with $13,027.15 (or $26,793.13 for Special Education) for tuition; in fact, many of them come from families which may pay little or nothing toward the taxes which support the schools. Each of some 4,800 homesteads in the Upper Adams School District contributes towards the bulk of UASD’s operating revenue, paying on average $2465.09 per homeowner. Even those families which do pay such taxes thus would likely pay far less than their child(ren)’s share of the budget.
Through the State’s existing Basic Education Formula (BEF), districts hardly receive any funds for students attending outside charter/cyber schools. Local funds through tax revenue pay for students to attend such schools. That means it takes the revenue from three or four average local taxpayers to cover the cost of one regular education child seeking such an option.
Every child who leaves the district schools for a charter or cyber option thus takes a large chunk out of the operating budget, although, generally speaking, the relative costs do not fall at anything like a commensurate rate. Indeed, because most of a district’s costs—including labor and infrastructure—are fixed, in any given year, a district would have to lose enough students of the same grade level to empty a full classroom in order to garner any measurable savings.
Mr. Mastriano seems dedicated to expanding such expensive external educational options while concurrently slashing the funding available to pay for public education. According to his stated objectives, these opportunities would include traditional public schools, charter and cyber schools, as well as additional external options via “Education Opportunity Accounts,” which would provide something like a Health Savings Account for education, a sort of latter-day voucher system.
This might make sense if money came with each child, but this is simply not the case, and thus this plan is a recipe that seems destined to have the potential to impoverish every district in Pennsylvania.
Furthermore, Mr. Mastriano is in favor of ending property taxes. As Forbes noted recently, “Mastriano has argued that Pennsylvania’s property tax should be cut to zero.” It is only fair to acknowledge that these taxes are wildly unpopular with most property owners, myself included. Property taxes are also a problematic way to fund schools in the first place, especially because they practically guarantee inequities among school districts, considering the fact that the communities funding the schools are of varying levels of affluence.
That said, property taxes provide the bulk of school operating funds in Pennsylvania: Local taxes support 52.1% of the Upper Adams budget, the State contributes 44.2%, and the Federal government gives just 3.7%. That 52.1% is millions & millions of dollars, and it has to come from somewhere, or public schools will simply cease to exist as we know thm, and there won’t be enough money for vouchers for other options, either. Until the legislature comes up with a reasonable and generally palatable substitute, it would be “completely irresponsible,” in PSEA’s term concerning Mr. Mastriano’s plan, to dispense with them out of hand. Unfortunately, as Forbes also has pointed out, Mr. Mastriano “has never suggested replacing that lost revenue with any other source; in fact, his website also promises to cut gas tax and corporate net income tax.”
So, in the phrase made infamous by Jerry Maguire, “show me the money.” Show me, in detail and without political rhetoric, how we can pay for schools in this way without making things worse than they currently are. The most cynical amongst us might argue that that’s a pretty low bar, but Mr. Mastriano does not seem even close to clearing it. It is a good thing to want to improve educational opportunities and resources for students, but these are children in our care, and although money matters—and I don’t blame those who think it matters a lot—children matter infinitely more. We must always be more concerned with their well-being than with the bottom line, and plans to overhaul significantly our educational system should be rigorous, well-conceived, and fully articulated and vetted in a public forum, not merely the subject of popular political rhetoric.
In the final analysis, Mr. Mastriano’s plan is poised to disadvantage disproportionately schools such as ours, which already struggle with more constrained resources than more affluent suburban districts. As recent studies have indicated, the results for the Upper Adams School District could well be catastrophic.
 Listen to his portion of the interview here: https://www.psea.org/mastrianocuts
 For the state-wide Charter School Tuition Rates, see: https://www.education.pa.gov/K-12/Charter%20Schools/Pages/Charter-School-Funding.aspx
 According to recent research by PSEA, Mr. Mastriano’s plan as currently conceived is poised to lower UASD’s revenue by approximately $9,930,268, or roughly 33%. This would likely result in significant staffing reductions (perhaps as many as over a hundred individuals), while raising the student-to-teacher ratio drastically (likely by double-digits). To consult an interactive map breaking down this general research on the level of each individual school district in Pennsylvania, see :https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/a4981f6cc02c4f50875e0b8c1245bbcf