Pa. Education Secretary says taxpayers doing their part - abc27 WHTM

Pa. Education Secretary says taxpayers doing their part

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There have been rallies, protests and complaints about public school funding since Tom Corbett became governor. There have been complaints that education is underfunded as some schools lay off teachers, slash programs and raise taxes and fees. 

But Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis said the perception that taxpayers are not doing enough to educate the Pennsylvania's children is wrong.

"I think that's something we always hear in public education, that we need to spend a little bit more, and we need to spend a little bit more, and we need to spend a little bit more," Tomalis said. "And I'm pretty comfortable saying 10 or 15 years from now, we'll be hearing that as well."

Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Schools Education Association (PSEA), doesn't buy Tomalis' argument. He said said educating children appropriately is going to be expensive and that the alternative is far worse. 

Tomalis said he hears PSEA's complaints but the argument doesn't add up.

He points to the 1995-96 school year. Local, state, and federal taxpayers spent $13 billion on K-12 education then. 

If school spending increased at the rate of inflation, that number would be $17 billion in the 2010-11 fiscal year. Last year, state, county and local governments poured $27 billion in to the state's public schools.

By comparison, the entire state budget is $28 billion.  

Tomalis said that should be enough.

"The issue is not the amount of money we're spending," Tomalis insists. "The issue is how we're spending it."

The statewide teacher's union disagrees with Tomalis. Strongly.

"I don't know what Secretary Tomalis is talking about," said Keever. "But here's what I do know: Pennsylvania's school districts are in the worst fiscal crisis since the 1930s."

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) agrees with Keever, saying the problem is unfunded state mandates, which force districts to provide certain services but doesn't provide the funding to pay for them.

Director of Research Services at PSBA David Devare said school boards are getting the same amount of money they did five years ago to pay for services to special needs students.

From the early 1970's to the early 2000's, Devar said Pennsylvania and local districts split the cost of education 50-50. Since then, state contribution has dropped to about 35 percent and local taxpayers have been forced to pick up the difference.

Devare adds that the cost of everything has gone up and districts are being forced to pay for charter schools. They spent $1 billion on charter schools last year, dollars they say are sucked right off their bottom line.

And then there's labor, which he says accounts for 65 percent of a school district's budget.

"The average teacher in Pa. is [being paid] $54-$56-thousand plus pension, healthcare, and related benefits," Devare said.

He estimates the total comes to $70,000.

Tomalis said schools are going to have to make things work. 

"There's a new reality in our fiscal environment in education," Tomalis said. "K-12, post secondary, it doesn't matter. Taxpayers are strained. State budgets are strained. Local budgets are strained."

And while there's no debate costs are rising enrollment is not.

The most recent census shows a 10 percent decrease in the number of school aged children between 2000-2010.

"So the number of kids has gone down and the level of spending has gone up," Tomalis said.

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