Real Solutions to Our Education Funding Crisis (VIDEO)

If you've been paying attention to the national news lately, you've certainly caught wind of the catastrophic budget problems that the Philadelphia public school system is currently facing.
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If you've been paying attention to the national news lately, you've certainly caught wind of the catastrophic budget problems that the Philadelphia public school system is currently facing. This isn't only happening in Pennsylvania, but other areas across the country that view budget cuts as an option to "fix" public schools. Perhaps even more ironic, in a week when even some Republican members of Congress have come out in support of the Safe Schools Improvement Act, Pennsylvania's Republicans, led by entrenched Governor Tom Corbett, have created a budget that should be entitled the Unsafe Schools Creation Act by maintaining nearly $1 billion in drastic cuts to education funding.

Now before I get to the details which I believe are up for debate, let me get past the details which I believe are not, namely the value of a first-class education. First, every dollar we spend on early childhood education comes back into the economy many times over. Some studies indicate (PDF) a return on investment as high as seven times that early investment in pre-K education. Second, increasing education funding leads to not just higher performance, but it means less government spending on incarceration and crime prevention. Increased education funding literally adds years to the lives of our students and future workforce, and extends the time period in which they work, earn, and pay into the system. Lastly, increasing education funding creates the types of schools that spawn innovation and the expertise necessary to compete in a global environment. Not only that, but better education is also linked to more secure, longer-lasting personal relationships. In short, more education funding means not just brighter students, it means smarter, happier, more productive workers, living longer, healthier, more industrious lives.

Unfortunately, here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, these truths are carrying less and less weight. Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives -- or should I say 108 members of the House Republican caucus -- passed a state budget that keeps in place nearly $1 billion (yes a billion, with a "B") in cuts to public education. Doing so not only put Pennsylvania behind all but just nine other states (PDF) in the percentage of education funding contributed by the state, but also clearly places outside corporate interests ahead of the well-being of our young people. If you think this sounds absurd, you're in good company. Not only is the situation for Pennsylvania's youth disastrous, Governor Tom Corbett and his Republican allies in the House seem to be willfully ignoring several easy, viable options to get us out of this mess.

In 2011, then newly-elected Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett decided to scrap Pennsylvania's school funding formula and imposed nearly $1 billion in education funding cuts. By doing so, Pennsylvania became one of just three states in the nation that does not use funding formulas to calculate appropriate funding levels for public education. Moreover, flat funding in 2012 maintained those cuts and now, in 2013, the governor and House Republicans have offered what they call "record funding" for schools by returning just one tenth of the funding cut to the current education funding levels. Granted, I do not have advanced degrees in mathematics or statistics, but I was entirely public-school educated, from grade school and high school to college and law school, and I know that restoring $100 million after a $1 billion cut is anything but record funding.

There is a myth that we live in an era of no options other than to continue to cut funding for schools and teachers, but what is so disturbing to me is the fact that we have practical options at our disposal to begin to restore adequate funding to our schools. First, like a number of Republican governors have already done, many of whom opposed Medicaid expansion far more vehemently than my own; Governor Corbett must accept the federal dollars that come with Medicaid expansion. Not only would doing so provide nearly 500,000 Pennsylvanians with access to quality, affordable health care, and create nearly 40,000 new jobs, but accepting Medicaid expansion would mean an additional $300-$400 million dollars a year in investment from the federal government. Again, this is just basic math.

Second, Pennsylvania sits atop one of the most abundant sources of natural gas in the world, but Governor Corbett has given the rights to drilling and fracking away for pennies on the dollar; natural resources that belong to all Pennsylvanians. We must impose a severance tax that would require the drilling and fracking companies not only to pay to ensure that their activities are environmentally sound, but also provide adequate compensation to the citizens of the commonwealth. Pennsylvania has perhaps the lowest natural gas drilling fees in the nation and according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, from July 2009 to June 2012, more than $8 billion worth of natural gas has been extracted from Pennsylvania. If we had implemented a moderate natural gas severance tax in line with our neighboring states such as West Virginia, we would have collected $538 million in revenue.

Finally, although a much heavier lift, Pennsylvania needs comprehensive tax reform. Pennsylvania is one of only ten states to have not yet adequately closed the Delaware loophole, which is estimated to cost Pennsylvania hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Currently, a staggering 71 percent of companies subject to the state corporate net income tax pay no tax at all. Those companies that are paying taxes pay much less than the income taxes of the average family making just $36,000 a year. Closing the Delaware loophole, combined with eliminating Governor Corbett's handouts to outside corporations in the form of a phase-out of the Capital Stock and Franchise Tax -- estimated to add $350 million to state coffers alone -- would bring hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars back into the Pennsylvania. In the 2013-2014 fiscal year alone, the cost of corporate tax cuts are expected to reach $3.16 billion.

Institutions of public education should be grand. They should be bold. They should be tall, towering monuments to not just the achievements of American industry and perseverance, but to their potential as well. Let us fully fund and promote public education and allow America's youth to thrive in this new millennium with the tools, resources, and education needed to be the smartest, most innovative and most adaptive workforce on Earth. It won't happen overnight. It won't happen with one budget, in one state, in one year, but this is where we can start. Let's start to make America's public education system the envy of the world, as it once was, and let's start in Pennsylvania because doing nothing is simply not an option.

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