Education

The 14 four-year universities within Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education have been a pivotal engine of upward mobility for working families in Pennsylvania for decades. Today, the role of these schools in making the American Dream a reality for a hundred thousand Pennsylvanians each generation is threatened. Deep cuts in state funding coupled with living expenses on campus that have risen faster than tuition are threatening to put State System schools beyond the financial reach of many moderate-income families. 

As a group, the 14 schools that make up Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education (hereafter the State System) are among Pennsylvania’s great working-class colleges. Forty-one percent of State System students from 1999 to 2004 (far enough back that we can analyze how these students fare economically as adults in their thirties) came from families with incomes (pre-tax income at the household level) in the bottom 60% of households, those earning less than $73,500 a year (in 2015 dollars). By comparison, just 18% of the students from Pennsylvania’s 10 most elite private colleges during this period came from bottom 60% families. 

Far from providing relief for working families, recent proposals to eliminate school property taxes in Pennsylvania would increase taxes on the middle class while sabotaging the chance to adequately fund Pennsylvania schools for middle- and low-income families.

This report provides the first estimates of the impact of property tax elimination proposals on families in Pennsylvania. Echoing recent debates about U.S. health care policy, our findings demonstrate that, in the case of proposed property tax elimination in Pennsylvania, the devil is in the details.

Despite Pennsylvania’s structural deficit and Governor Wolf’s proposal to cut tax credits by $100 million in 2017-18, lawmakers are currently considering expanding by 44%, or $55 million, two programs that already provide $125 million in taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend religious or other private schools. As well as diverting additional revenues from the General Fund without a revenue source in sight, this expansion is problematic because of a complete lack of financial and educational accountability within the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) program and the part of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program that funds taxpayer-funded vouchers. Two of many issues with these voucher programs, revealed in this report, are the extent to which curricula at schools attended by taxpayer-subsidized scholarships teach creationism and present the bible as literal truth in history and other subjects; and the extent to which tax-credit dollars, while marketed as serving low-income students in low-performing school districts, subsidize exclusive private schools catering mostly to the very affluent.

In his budget address, Governor Wolf observed that Pennsylvania faces a choice of two paths. Taking one path would require us to deal with the reality of our structural deficit and raise revenues to close it. It would enable government to continue to meet its responsibilities to educate our children, serve those who need our help, protect the environment and encourage economic growth. Taking the other path would require us to accept devastating cuts to education and health and human services.

The ideas in this document were compiled by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center based on our own work and that of our partner, the Keystone Research Center, and that of advocates on many issues. The names of our partners are in our letter to the Governor and the members of the General Assembly.

Budget numbers are always difficult to understand, not least because those with different perspectives can present the numbers in sharply different, but honest ways. In the context of the state’s still-unfinished 2105-16 budget, this brief presents a series of careful “apples-to-apples” comparisons of the three budgets in play in Harrisburg last year: Governor Wolf’s budget proposal, the Republican budget and the bi-partisan budget agreed to by Governor Wolf and the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties in the General Assembly.

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