New Castle News


June 30, 2014

Dear Reader: Efficiency overlooked in Pennsylvania budget crisis

NEW CASTLE — Politicians in Harrisburg are rounding up the usual suspects while crafting a balanced budget for the new fiscal year.

Depending on party, that means tax increases, plans to profit from liquor privatization, a rejiggering of pension benefits and assorted one-time gimmicks that shift funds but ultimately just delay the day of reckoning.

But nowhere in Harrisburg is any serious consideration being given to changing the way Pennsylvania does things, to provide essential public services in a more efficient, accountable fashion.

One of the driving factors in Harrisburg’s budget negotiations is education. Public opinion polls show that Pennsylvanians are unhappy with what’s happening with public education and want to see more money devoted to it. This despite the fact that the commonwealth already generates more than $16,000 per student annually.

Gov. Tom Corbett, who’s facing a re-election struggle, proposed a budget earlier this year that included a new grant program designed to boost education funding. But now, with Pennsylvania facing a $1.7 billion budget deficit, this plan may fade away.

Meanwhile, Democrats — who solidly favor more education spending — are talking tobacco and shale gas taxes as ways to boost revenue. Republicans aren’t keen on the concept.

As the old saying goes, something’s got to give. Either Republicans will cobble together a scaled-back budget with no tax hikes, or Democrats will persuade a few GOP dissidents to back some of their ideas. This will determine how much — if any — additional money flows in to public education.

Missing from the discussion, however, is any mention of rethinking how Pennsylvania spends its education dollars.

If politicians truly cared about students and their futures — something they routinely profess — they would be asking if funds spent truly benefit young people, or someone else.

Pennsylvania has a hodge-podge of 500 school districts. That’s too many. They need to be consolidated, particularly in the western part of the state, where student enrollment in many districts is declining rapidly.

Take Lawrence County. Almost every district in the county is losing student population.

A state government in tune with the notion of spending education dollars efficiently would be aggressively pursuing consolidation to help ensure tax dollars are spent more productively and directed more toward classrooms.

Instead, Pennsylvania has a system that actually discourages consolidation by picking up a substantial portion of the tab when new school buildings are constructed. The same system discourages renovation or any attempt to consider mergers with other districts.

Taxpayers need to understand how this system hurts them. And in the long run, it hurts students too.

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