A Two-Faced Approach to Public Education Funding

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

In the now famous Lincoln-Douglas debates during the 1858 U.S. Senate election in Illinois, Democratic U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas accused his Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln of being “two-faced,” to which Lincoln famously replied: “If I were two-faced, would I show you this one?”

Lincoln’s famously self-depreciating humor quickly diffused Douglas’ attack accusing Lincoln of standing on two different sides of one issue. During the 2004 Presidential campaign, a much less verbally adept U.S. Senator John Kerry found himself the subject of ridicule after he attempted to explain a vote on a supplemental appropriation for military operations in Iraq saying “I voted for it before I voted against it.”

Our nation’s politics have a rich history of politicians and elected officials trying to pacify both sides of a controversial issue by saying one thing to one group and another thing to a different group. Effectively accomplishing such a fence straddle has become much more difficult in the age of Google and omnipresent cell phones taking video.

Such a strategy, however, is being employed by the state’s education cabal as it seeks to divert dollars from the public treasury into government run schools, even those failing the students they claim to serve.

This year’s John Kerry award for being for it before being against it goes to Governor Josh Shapiro who triggered a months-long state budget crisis by agreeing to fund the Lifeline Scholarship Program, mysteriously re-named PASS, but then line item vetoing the program after being pressured by special interest groups and House Democrats.

But the education funding hypocrisy does not end there. Proponents of ever-increasing funding to K-12 public schools have been two-faced in both crying poor mouth while simultaneously taking credit for the massive increases in such funding that has occurred in recent years.

For example, Governor Shapiro’s official web site touts the “historic investments in public education ensuring students have more resources and parents have a voice in their children’s education.” The comment trumpets the $567 million increase in basic education funding for Pennsylvania school districts as the “largest BEF increase in history.”

This “historic” increase in basic education funding followed similar historically large increases enacted during the eight years his predecessor, Governor Tom Wolf, was in office. In fact, research conducted by the Commonwealth Foundation reveals state support for public education is “up 54% over the past decade reaching all-time high of nearly $15.5 billion in 2023-24.” State support for public education in Pennsylvania is $5,000 per student higher than the national average.

The rapid increase in spending has occurred while public school enrollment has dropped 7.7% since 2000. As the Commonwealth Foundation’s Nate Benefield said during a recent interview on Lincoln Radio Journal, “we don’t have a teacher shortage, we have a student shortage.”

That many school districts are actually flush with cash is proven by the fact they are stockpiling money in so-called reserve funds. Currently, over $5.96 billion sits in such accounts. While it is prudent to keep some money in reserve, an Auditor General’s report last year revealed some school districts are defacto hiding money in reserve funds to justify property tax increases.

Despite the ever-increasing flow of spending to educate fewer and fewer students the education cabal talks out of the other side of its mouth claiming our public schools are underfunded. In March of this year the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), a powerful special interest group, posted an article on its web site headlined “Call to Action: More Funding to Solve School Staffing Crisis.”

This statement was made against the backdrop of declining student enrollment and “historic” levels of funding. So, the issue isn’t is there enough money, the real issue is how the money is being spent. Fewer students should require fewer teachers. And the real financial drain is the exponential increase in administrative staff triggered in part by excessive state reporting requirements.

A recent Commonwealth Court ruling declaring the current funding formula for government schools to be unconstitutional is being used by the education cabal to leverage even more state taxpayer dollars. This despite the fact the court did not declare the schools to be underfunded, but found the distribution of those funds to be deficient.

So the next raid on the public treasury will come under the guise of complying with that court ruling. The change that must occur, however, is not a funding increase, but rather adjusting the funding formula and requiring school districts to right size their teaching and administrative staffs to reflect declining student enrollment.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal and American Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)

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