Pedro A. Rivera: Stopgap budget not the remedy for Pennsylvania’s schools

Pedro A. Rivera - Contributing Columnist | September 20th, 2015 11:30 pm

Some things about the school year run like clockwork.

Buying backpacks and school supplies, parent back-to-school-nights, even the first report card comes out around the same time every year. The school year is full of predictability. However, just because something is predictable, doesn’t make it satisfactory.

Over the past four years, the commonwealth’s schools predictably received cuts to their funding – like clockwork. Last week, some legislative leaders showed their unwillingness to meet Gov. Tom Wolf at the table for an honest negotiation on education funding. It’s true some schools are struggling, or will soon struggle, without state funding, but a stopgap budget will effectively lock in systemic inequities that have built up over the past four years.

Pennsylvania’s schools need a comprehensive plan that restores years of predictable cuts to education, and makes an investment in our future. The governor offered a commonsense severance tax on natural gas to fill those gaps and bring our state funding for schools one step closer to equity.

In the meantime, the Department of Education will continue to help school districts find solutions to any financial hardship, so they can pay their bills on time while continuing to educate our students. Additionally, the governor has pledged to fight for full reimbursement of interest paid on the loans districts are forced to take as a result of the impasse, as part of the final budget. The goal is to keep all 500 districts running seamlessly, despite what is happening in Harrisburg.

We understand the challenges the impasse has placed on school districts, but allowing a stopgap without a long-term budget plan in the works will hurt far worse. In June, the Republicans presented the governor with an unbalanced budget that included only $8 million in additional dollars for schools.

The governor vetoed that budget because he is committed to restoring all cuts made to Pennsylvania’s schools; the budget he proposed in March invests an additional $1 billion in education at all levels, including a $400 million investment in basic education. Without that, school officials have told us they will not be able to sustain programs such as pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten, after-school tutoring and summer school. Others will not be able to re-hire staff to meet the needs of struggling students, or provide college and career counseling for graduating seniors. These are only a few examples of what happens when the state does not make education a priority.

Our schools deserve to have the $1 billion restored to them in state funding that’s been cut over the last four years, which has led to dramatic understaffing and larger class sizes. Our children deserve fair access to a quality education regardless of their ZIP code.

And all Pennsylvanians deserve to live in a school district they can be proud of – without bearing an undue property tax burden. It’s exactly what Gov. Wolf has been working toward all along – and will continue to fight for – because it’s the right thing to do.

Despite the uncertainty over funding, our teachers and students kicked off the school year with enthusiasm, and great work is happening in classrooms across the commonwealth. It’s time we provide our schools with the tools they need to continue to help our students achieve.

Pedro A. Rivera

Contributing Columnist

Pedro A. Rivera is secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Education.