By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
While the final education budget won’t roll out until the end of June, local legislators and school district officials met Thursday night to talk about key issues curently affecting public education, specifically charter schools, pension reform and state funding.
Hosted by Mercer Area School District, Reps. Mark Longietti, Hermitage, D-7th District, Dick Stevenson, Grove City, R-8th District, Michelle Brooks, Jamestown, R-17th District, and Sen. Bob Robbins, Salem Township, R-50th District, talked with Mercer County school directors and superintendents about the pain charter schools are inflicting on public education, by siphoning off millions of dollars in funding while not being held to the same standards as public schools.
Sharon School District Superintendent John Sarandrea said of Pennsylvania’s 1.8 million children who go to school, almost 100,000 are enrolled in cyber-education.
“The reform for this is long overdue and I think it’s because the entrepreneurs in this field are campaign contributors. If we moved at the pace you people do, we would be out of a job. It’s time for a little cold water thrown in your face,” Sarandrea told the panel.
Public school educators are calling for lawmaker to review legislation that allows “the money to follow the student”, sending thousands of dollars to online schools, which have little of the expense of the brick and mortar schools, nor are they held to the same educational standards.
Longietti said he supports a bill calling for reform because he thinks “people would be astounded when they hear how much charter schools cost districts.”
Others in the audience said Pennsylvania is one of only three other states that does not use a formula to determine basic education funding. This year’s appropriation for education is about $5.5 billion, an increase of $90 million over last year.
According to information posted on the Department of Education website, 53 percent of education spending comes from property taxes, while the state picks up the tab for 36 percent and the federal government kicks in 11 percent.
Brooks said several local districts actually receive more money than if there was a funding formula in place that would be based on population.
“I ran the numbers and Jamestown school district would actually have lost money,” she said.
Robbins said he continually faces the battle of what he calls the “big five” - the counties around the Philadelphia area. “Do you want to see your funding based on average daily attendance figures? Be careful what you wish for,” he said.
Stevenson said this year’s proposed budget will provide about $6,227 for a student in Sharon. Similarly, if a funding formula was used, a student in Seneca, another area in his district with a wealthier tax base, would get only $1,830.
“And that’s exactly how it should be. The have a tax base to support the school. In Farrell and Sharon, about half the kids are from low-income households,” Sarandrea said.
Longietti said he supports the bipartisan system currently in place but worries about the goal of educating students to “an adequate level.”
“It’s impossible to get to perfect, but what does it cost to educate to adequate? he said. He said he would like to see a heftier tax levied against the up and coming oil and gas industry. “We are getting some money from them, but I don’t think it’s where it should be,” he said.
Robbins said he thinks the oil and gas industries are already taxed at a high level.
Don’t make the assumption they aren’t. But if you tax them too much those same companies that left New York state to come here will keep right on going and head to West Virginia,” he said.
Other potential sources of revenue, including cash from casino gaming, is tied up in property tax relief for seniors, Longietti said.
Others in the audience complained of having to take weeks to teach to standardized tests, a process they said takes up too much time and doesn’t allow teachers to go “as deep” as they would like in certain subjects.
Brooks said she understands the frustration of teachers and said she believes a test “does not measure success.”
Robbins said he was satisfied as long as “they can read when they get out of that building. If they want to go on then and be a functional human being, then they can, but as long as they can read, that’s what is important,” he said.