Budget lag leaves schools scarred
Public schools and colleges across Pennsylvania breathed a sigh of relief last week with the end of the impasse over the state’s budget finally in sight. However, there is no guarantee the storm has actually passed, and the Pennsylvania government should not have spent nine months playing a game of chicken while schools went unfunded.
Despite lingering threats of yet another veto, Pennsylvania Governer Tom Wolf ultimately decided to let the newest Republican-proposed budget become law (albeit without his signature, as a sign of his continued disapproval). But what some are calling a victory in the Pennsylvania budget crisis has arrived nearly nine months late, and we can’t simply expect the underlying problems to go away because of a halfhearted compromise.
This budget does provide some benefits for education, a cause Wolf wants to champion during his time in office. An extra $200 million will be distributed to various districts throughout the state. In addition, state-related universities like the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University, and Temple University will benefit from the bill — they are due to receive 5 percent more funding than they have in the past.
However, the very same schools Wolf claimed to want to help may have suffered the most during the months where the state had no budget at all. Districts resorted to borrowing money and cutting back on after-school programs and supplies in an effort to make ends meet without much help from the state government. Furthermore, the state’s poorest public school districts, like Aliquippa in Beaver County, were in imminent danger of closing their doors altogether thanks to the lack of funds.
Wolf seems to feel that paying such a cost now is worth it for the greater good of the state in the long run. Concerned about the actions of lawmakers in Harrisburg, his additional goals include preventing elected officials from receiving gifts, as well as supervising how campaign funds are used and how much outside income can be accepted.
“The consequences of that fight are starting to appear on the horizon, and that is a short term shutdown [of schools or human service agencies],” Wolf said in an article on PennLive. “But if that leads to a long-term solution to this problem, that’s a good thing.”
In reality, however, the compromise ultimately gave neither side what they wanted. Republicans, despite their plan passing, were denied the liquor privatization, changes to the state pension system, and property tax reforms they tried to implement.
On the other side, even with an increase overall to education funding, Wolf was ultimately denied an extra $400 million for schools, as well as tax increases to decrease the state’s deficit. He is still planning on vetoing the fiscal code meant to go with the budget, citing claims that some provisions for state programs are unconstitutional along with the fact that the plan would leave Pennsylvania in even more debt.
As a result of the lingering disagreements, the budget crisis is not necessarily over. With the budget for next fiscal year due in July, there’s no guarantee that the gridlock will not simply begin all over again as Wolf strives to reform state spending, even at the expense of those who desperately need any funds at all. During the nine months without a budget this year, Wolf was forced to release emergency funds to schools just to keep them afloat. If the lack of funding continues, it is almost certain that the impact on struggling districts will be devastating.
While corruption in government offices and a growing deficit are undeniably problems that must be dealt with, preventing students from learning gives rise to an entire new level of issues that permanently impact a generation of Pennsylvanians. And while Wolf’s endgame includes an increase in funding to public education, threatening the survival of schools in the meantime is simply unacceptable. The viewpoints between the parties may be different, but it is now the lawmakers’ job to find a way to resolve the issues in a way that is both legal and conscientious — not to mention timely.
One way or another, lawmakers must find a way to uphold the Constitution in the future — and they must do so without threatening the schools tasked with educating the children across the state.