School reform battle rages in Pennsylvania

The Republican majority in the Pennsylvania State Senate has refused to pass Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell’s education budget even though the state’s schools have been in session for nearly a month. Inquiries from angry citizens receive the same reply, “We are trying to work something out.”

Rendell was elected largely because he campaigned for education reform, a more equitable funding of all school districts, and the reduction of both real estate taxes and the Philadelphia wage tax. Rendell, the former mayor of Philadelphia, campaigned hard in the suburbs and rural areas of the state, winning over many Republicans.

Rendell’s education reform and funding bills were passed by the General Assembly just before the Legislature adjourned in June, but the Senate has flatly refused to pass the package. Senate Republicans oppose even a small increase in the state income tax and some oppose taxing slot machines. The governor says he will veto any legislation that does not greatly increase funding for his reforms that include increasing funding for public schools by $1.3 billion over three years and providing $1.5 billion in property tax relief. An increase in the state’s income tax for those making over $54,000 a year and a tax on slot machines at racetracks would pay for these changes.

Rendell’s education bills call for funding pre-kindergarten for 127 low-income districts, full-day kindergarten for all school districts, smaller classes in grades K-3 (17 students per teacher), teacher training, tutoring, family resource centers, math and reading coaches, science laboratories and more science and math teachers in rural schools. Hundreds of thousands of students would benefit.

Over the last 20 years state funding of education has declined sharply. Wealthy school districts can afford quality schools but poorer districts are forced to make cuts. Good Schools Pennsylvania, a statewide advocacy organization, organized a wide-ranging lobbying campaign for education reform through religious congregations and community groups and coalitions. This year, on a daily basis, parents, students, educators and advocates from almost every school district have visited their legislators, held rallies and launched postcard and letter campaigns.

Dennis Barnebey is one of those advocates. “The governor is right to offer bold new proposals to bring Pennsylvania into the 21st century. We are still trying to get by on 19th century models, and the results have been disastrous.”

The author can be reached at phillyrose1@earthlink.com