The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

June 5, 2013

Survival tactic detrimental to students

Daily Item

---- — Cutting funding for education has been all the rage in Pennsylvania for the better part of three years, or roughly the time Gov. Tom Corbett has been in office. In his first three budgets, the Republican governor has cut more than $1 billion from education in the state, although now he is hoping for selective amnesia before next November.

For our schools, there is no end in sight to these dire straits.

For the first few months of 2013, school boards across the Valley -- and the state -- have spent meeting after meeting finding ways to close budget gaps. Solutions have run the gamut: Cut technology; cut art and athletics; cut classroom aides, and even close schools.

At the same time, taxes are going up in most places by more than is normally allowed thanks to state-wide exemptions to a legislated cap on tax increases. Even with the cuts and the tax increases, several Valley districts have still not finalized their budgets.

The net effect is widespread cost-shifting from state to district, with a still-forming picture of what this will mean at ground level when the dust settles.

An often-mentioned obstacle to local administrative autonomy are unfunded mandates that have created huge gaps in school district budgets across the state. By cutting funding without addressing mandates, the state delegates to districts difficult decisions regarding which programs to keep or cut.

It is not unusual, for example, for state or federal authorities to mandate some level of student achievement, measured by test scores, but then to declare the curriculum designed to achieve those results are a matter for the districts to decide.

Does this divorce between authority and responsibility make sense? Of course not.

This lack of coordination between state and local districts appears to be by design, allowing both levels of authority and taxation to blame the other for decisions that go awry or are unpopular with the public.

The upshot of this approach has been management by fiscal crisis, a three-year lurch from one budget leak to another and an almost constant focus on making ends meet, not end-results.

This is a problem created by how we organize, fund and operate public education. We made it, so we can fix it.

It may be an immediate survival tactic for administrators and office holders, but it is not good for our children, our state or our country.