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Guest column: Democrats' education plans in Pennsylvania and spending explosion as a sign for teachers' unions and special interests

Jay-Z has told Pennsylvania lawmakers what's wrong with education. Instead of demanding another blank check for our state's struggling schools, the rapper and his charity Roc Nation want to mobilize support for more options in the Keystone State.

To paraphrase Jay-Z, Pennsylvania schools have 99 problems, but funding is not one of them.

In the 2022-23 school year, public school funding was $21,985 per student, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. In addition to these record spending levels — the seventh-highest in the nation — Pennsylvania school districts are flush with cash, holding a combined $6.8 billion in reserve funds.

Despite these influxes of funding, academic achievement remains appallingly poor. More than half of fourth-graders and nearly 75% of eighth-graders in Pennsylvania are unable to perform math at grade level. Test scores were already declining before the COVID-19 pandemic and have not yet recovered from that significant decline.

In addition, children in Pennsylvania face violence in their district schools on a daily basis. According to PDE data, students in Pennsylvania's lowest-performing schools – the bottom 15% on statewide tests – are twice as likely to be victims of assault, threats, gun possession, theft and fights as their peers.

To address these troubling issues, the state's Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is sticking to the same failed strategy: solving the problem with money. Pennsylvania's lower house passed House Bill (HB) 2370, which proposes putting nearly $6 billion more into basic education funding.

HB 2370 sends a clear message that House Democrats are putting special interests ahead of the needs of our children. They are more concerned with pleasing their teachers' union campaign donors than developing effective solutions that will strengthen our education system.

Moreover, the bill is a tough blow to Pennsylvania's inflation-stricken taxpayers, many of whom believe current education spending is too high. The increase proposed in HB 2370 would impose an additional tax burden of $2,000 per year on families — at a time when groceries, gasoline and the rising cost of living are making savings more scarce than ever.

The inflated price tag of HB 2370 is a nod to the Basic Education Funding Commission (BEFC) and its blatantly partisan report released in January. The report, which passed by a narrow margin of one vote, went far beyond the commission's statutory mandate to review Pennsylvania's fair funding formula. Instead, the report's recommendations reflect the superficial views of teachers unions and other special interests.

Democrats in Pennsylvania continue to ignore the need for real, profound change.

One such solution, the same one advocated by Jay-Z, is still under debate: Lifeline scholarships.

This initiative would provide limited-use scholarship accounts to students at Pennsylvania's worst schools. Students and families can use these accounts to pay private school tuition and escape their failing district school.

Lifeline Scholarships is a bipartisan solution.

The Senate Education Committee passed Senate Bill (SB) 795, which codifies the Lifeline Scholarship Initiative as the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) Scholarship Program.

This bill, sponsored by State Senator Judy Ward, passed the committee with bipartisan votes.

State Senator Anthony Williams, a Democrat from Philadelphia who voted for SB 795, gave an impassioned speech urging his colleagues in the legislature to listen to his constituents' calls for real education reform.

Without real reform, life is hard for Pennsylvania's children.

Kevin Kane is director of legislative strategy at the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania's free-market think tank.

Anna Harden

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