budget
Michael Nutter sweeps through the mayoral elections to a satisfying victory. . Credit: Rebeca Martinez

Education is at the top of the agenda in the recent city and state budget proposals released in early March.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has proposed a 9.34 percent increase in property taxes for Philadelphia in an effort to offset the School District’s $80 million deficit for the upcoming school year and to answer their plea for additional funds.

“I don’t want to raise your taxes, but I do want to educate our children,” Nutter said in his March 5 budget address.

In 2010, property taxes were raised by 9.9 percent. The proposed budget for the next fiscal year would include the largest increase in property taxes since then.

These funds, if approved by the City Council, would more than offset the District’s current budget shortfall. However, in the School District’s recently released Action Plan 3.0, they requested $206 million from the state and $103 million from the city to reach the combined total of $309 million — a number that would still only keep the status quo in the District.

Both the state- and city-wide budget proposals would bring in $289 million as compared to the requested $309 million. To begin making improvements above the current level of services like those outlined in the Action Plan 3.0, the District’s projects need an additional $370 million. Despite that, Superintendent William Hite told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he was “elated” with Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed revenue increases.

Nutter’s property tax increase would account for $105 million, and the governor’s plans include a six percent bump in the state’s share of basic and special education funding to $159 million.

While Wolf’s budget has been described as politically incompatible with a majority-Republican state legislature, parts of his proposal may survive in some form, 2005 College graduate and local budget expert Rachel Meadows said.

“The biggest thing is that both parties in Harrisburg got the message loud and clear that more is needed for education funding,” she said.

Meadows, a former budget analyst for School Reform Commission member and former City Councilman Bill Green, explained that some may do “whatever they can to torpedo Governor Wolf’s time in office.” On the other hand, some legislators who may have worries about re-election might be more concessionary to Wolf’s proposals.

Support for education spending has long been a prominent issue on the policy agenda. Wolf’s ouster of former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett last fall definitively pushed education to the forefront of Pennsylvania politics.

Critics of Corbett cited the state-level cuts to basic education funding and his removal of the funding formula for schools. “The state really made severe cuts, and there’s not that much more that you can cut at this point,” Meadows said.

Funding for the District can come from either raising taxes to create more revenue or cutting expenditures, Meadows said. Over the past several years, cuts to the district budget left schools without resources like counselors, nurses, books and supplies.

Wolf’s budget proposal included a call to bring back a funding formula, but was light on technical details.

“[The] proposal will ensure education funds are distributed in a manner that is efficient, equitable and transparent,” Wolf said in his March 3 address.

Under former Gov. Ed Rendell’s funding formula, “districts who served more disadvantaged students received more money,” Graduate School of Education professor Matthew Steinberg said.

Such an arrangement would benefit the School District of Philadelphia, which generally serves students from lower-income families.

Both the governor’s and mayor’s budgets will need to work in tandem with local institutions for true change to occur in Philadelphia schools.

“The way schools are funded is a function of state and local resources. Districts want to maximize resources while limiting the tax burden on their residents,” Steinberg said.

“If the state gives you a dollar, does that mean a dollar more ends up in classrooms? The research says it doesn’t,” Steinberg added. “It’s important to understand that when state support goes up, there is the potential for reductions in local aid that could offset to a large extent the additional aid that’s coming through the state.”

Different governmental institutions play an uneven hand in determining the net result of education funding.

“There’s multiple political actors and responses at play that will affect the money that ends up in the classroom,” Steinberg said.

The city technically has 30 days before the end of the fiscal year — May 31 — to approve a budget for the upcoming year. However, the city has delayed passage until June in previous years.

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