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Hot Topic #1: School Taxes

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Pennsylvania State Capitol Rotunda
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School Funding Formula Issues

I attended the presentation sponsored by my REALTOR(r) Association, 'Fighting for our Fair Share of School Funding', a discussion led by Ron Colwell, former member of the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives and education funding expert and lobbyist.  The turnout was not that great considering how often we hear from people who are unhappy with their tax bills, but the presentation was very informative nonetheless.  While it did not present any earth-shattering revelations, or provide any miraculous remedies, it did reinforce a lot of things I knew already and drove home the idea that the problem is huge and not going away anytime soon.  Mr. Colwell, over an hour and a half, presented the following main points:

  • Problem #1:  Education is underfunded in Harrisburg, so, therefore, all the school districts in the State are competing for a too-small piece of the pie.
  • Problem#2:  The funding formula in PA is easy to explain because it doesn't exist...there is no real mystery in why there are inequities in the distribution of State dollars for schools because there are no guidelines or formulas.  Changes in funding for different districts stopped in 1991, which is when the last hint of a formula was last seen.  So, any changes in a district's number of students or relative wealth has meant nothing as far as funding is concerned.
  • Problem #3:  The result of #1 & 2 above equates to a $2.5-3B deficit in education funding...that's right, statewide we are BILLIONS of dollars short!  These billions are made up by, you got it, our school taxes.  Where the state, under normal circumstances, should be footing 50% of the bill for an 'average' district, our local districts are getting 23-25% from the state.  So, basically, property owners are footing the bill for Harrisburg's neglect of our schools, first by not budgeting enough for them to begin with and, second by not equalizing the distribution through use of a proper formula.

There Are No Easy Answers

Granted, this is not really new information-we've known this for a while.  What I learned from Mr. Colwell is something more fundamental and basic...something which we have not heard from our elected officials...which is the honest and brutal truth:  this problem is not going to go away and is not going to be fixed by belt-tightening in Harrisburg, nor by gambling, lotteries, or other such 'gimmicks' (his word!).  The projected revenue from slots will come no where near the $2.5 B that we need per year.  The plain fact is that we here in our beautiful state will need to pay the bill, someway, somehow, and probably generating the needed revenue through some other kind of tax.  No one seems to want to hear that or believe it, but I trust that this is the correct answer as unpleasant as that may be.  Only until we find an equitable way to distribute the costs to all of our residents, will property owners see any relief.

Tax Smokescreens

A couple of warnings presented by Mr. Colwell:  do not be fooled or lulled in to a sense well being on this issue by the receipt of a check from the state toward your tax bill, which some seniors might see this year...this 'tax relief' is a temporary fix, a band-aid.  Do not be fooled into thinking your representatives have done their job in Harrisburg because they bring back a check for this project or a grant for that...these 'deals' being cut by our reps. are only a symptom of the bigger problems and should be seen as a distraction from the real issues.  His advice, demand real changes and do not be swayed from the goal, which is true funding for our schools.

Any thoughts?

Further reading:

The Education Policy & Leadership Center

PA Dept. of Education 


Bob Miller

Unfortunately, the fact that education in PA is underfunded should come as no surprise. It simply reflects the priority that most states and the US government put on education today, which is why the US ranks 17th out of 20 on test scores of industrialized countries. If we can't manage to reverse this trend, we are going to be in big trouble. Consider some of the following facts, according to Karl Fisch at

The top 25% of people in China with the highest IQ's is greater than the total population of North America, which means that they have more honors students than we have students.

The Nintendo corporation spent $140 million on research and development in 2002 alone. The US government spent less than half that much on research and innovation in education.

According to former Secretary of Education Richard Riley, the top 10 jobs that will be in demand in 2010 didn't exist in 2004. We are trying to prepare students for jobs that don't yet exist using technologies that haven't been invented in order to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet.

New technology is doubling every two years. This means that half of the technical information a first year college student learns will be outdated by his third year.

A week's worth of information in the NY Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th century.

There will be more information generated this year than in the previous 5,000 years.

And yet, in spite of all this, local communities are forced to vote down school budgets because they can't afford an increase in taxes since they have to bear the burden of the state's shortfall in educational funding. Isn't it time that the public got outraged and called our elected officials, both state and federal, to account?

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