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The Walking Life

There's a welcome side benefit to Gov. Rendell's plan for shifting more school funding to the state. It can help reduce sprawl.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, June 15, 2003

By Thomas Hylton

Gov. Ed Rendell says his plan to increase state funding for public schools will reduce real estate taxes, promote school equity, and improve educational performance. Each is a worthy goal. But there's another, less recognized benefit to the plan: It will help preserve Pennsylvania's cities, towns and countryside.

Paying for schools is a serious burden on cities and towns, contributing to the high local taxation that drives away businesses and residents. For 50 years, urban property values have gradually declined as industries and middle class residents moved out. At the same time, the growing concentration of poor people left behind has increased the need for services. As cities raise taxes to provide those services, even more businesses and middle class residents are motivated to leave, continuing the downward spiral.

That's one reason why struggling communities like Homestead and Wilkinsburg have among the highest local taxes in Allegheny County, and wealthy municipalities like Fox Chapel and Sewickley Heights have among the lowest.

Meanwhile, municipalities on the urban fringe encourage new development, figuring that it expands the tax base and thus increases revenues. Unfortunately, this development often consumes farmland, mars scenic landscapes, and spawns traffic congestion, which no one really wants. Only after a municipality is built out, unfortunately, do officials acknowledge that development invariably increases the need for services - outstripping the revenues generated from the newly expanded tax base.

Much unwise development could be avoided if more funding for local services came from state rather than local taxation. One reason England has preserved its towns and countryside, for example, is that the national government funds 75 percent of local services. Development doesn't generate any local tax revenue, so there's no incentive for rural English municipalities to seek it.

In Pennsylvania, the best way to reduce local taxation - thus increasing the incentive to develop in existing towns rather than the countryside - would be to provide more state revenue for schools. Among Allegheny County municipalities, for example, anywhere from 45 to 75 percent of all real estate tax revenues go to the school districts. But state funding of schools has actually declined, from 55 percent in 1974 to 39 percent in 2000. According to Education Week, the national education journal, only one state - Nebraska - provides less state funding for public schools than Pennsylvania. Only two states have a greater funding gap between rich and poor school districts.

Many states have increased their funding of schools in recent years, sometimes dramatically:

  • Michigan increased state funding from 33 percent in 1993 to 70 percent in 2000.
  • Vermont increased its share from 30 percent in 1998 to 61 percent in 2000.
  • New Hampshire boosted its contribution from 8 percent in 1998 to 57 percent in 2000.

The Pennsylvania Constitution makes education a state responsibility. Up to now, the state legislature has delegated that responsibility to local school districts, but without providing funding sufficient to do the job. Gov. Rendell's proposal to increase state funding to 50 percent of total costs is, if anything, too modest. It's still a smaller proportion than most states provide.

Pennsylvania is trying to fight sprawl. It's spent $525 million - more than any other state - to preserve farmland by purchasing conservation easements. It has one of the nation's leading programs to reclaim brownfields - polluted industrial land - for redevelopment in our cities and towns.

It would be foolish to undermine these efforts by perpetuating a system of taxation that saps our towns, decimates our countryside, and sets municipalities fighting among each other for taxable development.

People may reasonably argue about the mechanics of Gov. Rendell's plan. But the fundamental need to increase the state's share of education funding cannot be denied. Investing more state money in public schools will help our young people, to be sure. It will also help reinvigorate our towns and protect our rural areas.



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