Thursday, July 17, 2014

"Opportunity" for education dollars, hurt by tax breaks

Crafting a state budget is all about priorities.

For four years now, Gov. Tom Corbett and his Republican colleagues leading the House and Senate have shown that giving tax breaks to some multi-national corporations, while refusing to tax others at all, is their priority and that funding public education is not.

Since he took office, Corbett has provided more than $2 billion in big-business tax cuts. Not to mention allowing multinational corporations to continue using the Delaware loophole to avoid paying taxes while, at the same time, refusing to implement a shale gas severance tax.

In an attempt to cover their tracks, Corbett and the Republicans are now trying to include funding for pensions as part of their calculations of education funding levels. But that's not flying with the parents and taxpayers in Pennsylvania who understand that funding for old pension obligations doesn't help a single student learn to read, write or solve a math equation. It never has, nor should it now be, included in the bottom line. For comparison sake, the total education spend, not including pension costs, (... because historically, no other administration has ever included pension costs when calculating levels of education funding) for 2008-09 -- the year before federal stimulus funding -- was $9.36 billion. Meanwhile, total education dollars spent in 2014-15, not including pension costs, (... because historically, no other administration has ever included pension costs when calculating education funding levels) is $9.18 billion. Clearly less funding, yet Corbett and the Republicans in an attempt to call a lame duck a swan, try to tout this as an increase.

Simply put -- Corbett and the Republican-led House and Senate have cut education funding in Pennsylvania by about $3 billion total over the past four years.

Those funding cuts at the state level have drastically impacted Pennsylvania's 500 school districts, which have been forced to lay off 20,000 employees, cut programs, increase class sizes and hike local property taxes.

But wait ... that's not enough tax breaks for corporations or enough defunding of public education for Corbett and his Republican privateers. To make matters worse, the 2014-15 state budget continues $150 million in business tax credits for the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) ... or what some like to describe as "the faux voucher program that masquerades as choice."

Some Republican echo chamber organizations continue to tout these programs as vehicles for "saving tax dollars." Their argument goes something like this ... if corporations (remember, they are people too) can pay their taxes to private schools instead of to the state so that a handful of kids can attend the private schools of their choice, the rest of the taxpayers in the state will actually save money. I know ... it makes no sense ... but that's what they are claiming.

However, providing those tax credits to businesses doesn't relieve the school district of their educational expenses or the rest of the taxpayers the burden of paying for the lost revenue.

Those scholarship recipients aren't leaving Pennsylvania classrooms in groups of 25 or 500, which would lead to one less classroom or one less school building. On the contrary, the buses still run past the child's house that opted for the taxpayer-subsidized private scholarship (and in some cases the public schools incur additional costs to transport that scholarship student separately to their new private school). Meanwhile, the same costs still accrue for the public school ... a teacher might have one less kid in their class (although they most likely have 10 more due to the Corbett education cuts), the cafeteria worker still prepares the same lunch (less one serving), the principal still oversees the same number of teachers (although probably 10 less as a result of the Corbett education cuts), the janitor still cleans the same school building, and there are still the same numbers of teacher's aides and nurses … check that, the Republicans cut reimbursement for nurses and teacher's aides so they are no longer a part of any equation anyway. But ... the same lights are still on in the same classroom, the same public school building is still heated to the same temperature by the same boiler, and the same roof still needs the same repair.

So where are all these "savings" other than lurking somewhere in the ideological minds of the faux voucher advocates.

The reality is, these business tax credits don't save any taxpayer dollars. In fact, they are an extra cost to Pennsylvania's pocketbook. The $150 million of taxes otherwise due to the state would be better spent in the public classroom for the basic education or special education line items.

But as we've already discussed, those aren't priorities for Gov. Corbett or the Republican-led General Assembly.