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Advocacy Update: The Fight for PA Public Schools and Arts Education

Schools across the State are struggling, and the Philadelphia School District is in crisis--what are the City and State doing to help?

The PA State Education budget has been cut by $900 million in the last two years, forcing public schools across the state to make extreme cuts in extracurricular programs and staff, including complete elimination of the already diminished art and music programs that are so essential to our students and to cultivating the creative vitality of our region.

The Philadelphia School District in particular has been struggling, with a $304 million budget shortfall. With funding uncertain at the end of the school year, the District was forced to approve a bare-bones budget that eliminated approximately 3,850 staffing positions in schools across the city and forced some schools to close entirely. Superintendent William R. Hite, Jr. asked City Council to come up with a $60 million solution for the schools, and he also requested $120 million from the State and called for union concessions.

To demonstrate the importance of public education and extracurricular programs like art and music, GroundSwell and Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) led a series of actions at City Council sessions throughout May and June. Students, parents and educators joined forces to demonstrate the value of arts education through puppetry, music and poetry performances, and met with Council members to ask them to "get creative" to find $60 million for the School District.

In late June, Council passed a $2-per-pack cigarette tax expected to raise $40 million for City schools (which would still require State approval to go into effect) and also announced plans to put pressure on delinquent taxpayers to generate an additional $28 million for schools. However, voting in the State legislature on the third measure planned to generate funding, a hike in the business Use and Occupancy tax, was delayed.

Though the situation in Philadelphia is the most critical, the lack of funding for public education isn't limited to the City.  Near the end of June the Pennsylvania State House approved a budget plan, but not one that went far enough to restore the funding our schools so desperately need. As the Senate worked on its own budget proposal, GroundSwell led several targeted online advocacy efforts, encouraging constituents to email the Senate Leadership committee and their own State Senators and ask for a commitment to restore the $900 million in cuts made two years ago, starting by approving a $270 million increase in the basic education subsidy districts receive to cover basic operating costs.

On Sunday, June 30th, the Senate finished its spending plan, and the House and Senate both voted to send the budget to the Governor.  Late Sunday night, Governor Corbett signed the $28.4 billion general fund budget for 2013-14. The approved budget increases state aid for public schools by about $267 million, though around 60% of that funding is slated for the State's pension obligations for retired teachers, making the actual dollar amount for schools far short of the aid parents, teachers, students and other education advocates across the State were calling for. The aid for Philadelphia alone will be only $14 million, far from the $120 million requested by the School District.

On June 30th the cigarette tax proposal for Philadelphia was officially declared "dead," but a State Senate panel approved legislation to extend Philadelphia's additional 1% sales tax to raise money for the schools. Governor Corbett has also proposed a funding package for Philadelphia schools, which awaits approval from the legislature. The package includes:

  • Extension of the 1% sales tax in Philadelphia for 2014-15 (the school district would borrow $50 million against this for this year).
  • $45 million from the Federal government, generated by forgiving a debt owed by the State.
  • $30 million generated by more efficient collection of Philadelphia taxes.
  • $15 million in new basic education funding for Philadelphia for 2013-14 (up from 2012-13).

It is unclear at this time to what extent the package could reverse the layoffs and cuts made by the Philadelphia School District at the end of the school year.