By Peter Hall
Friday night lights going dark across Pennsylvania would be but one of the more visible impacts of Doug Mastriano’s public school funding plan, education advocates say.
A projection of school funding and staffing reductions based on the Republican gubernatorial nominee’s public statements about eliminating school property taxes, slashing per-pupil spending and providing school choice vouchers shows some school districts could see their revenue reduced by up to 67%.
Total public education revenue would decrease by nearly $13 billion, nearly 120,000 jobs would be lost and student to teacher ratios would double, according to an analysis published this week by the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the union representing 178,000 teachers and support staff.
As a result of eliminating school property taxes, an additional $6 billion in state revenue would be required to fund public education, even at the reduced cost Mastriano proposes, the analysis found.
Many of the harder hit districts would be in the state’s most rural areas, including districts in Mastriano’s south-central Pennsylvania Senate district, according to the PSEA analysis.
“Our schools already are hanging on by a thread, the idea that funding could be cut in half, our local school systems would be obliterated,” said Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters PA, a public education advocacy group.
Spicka said Mastriano’s proposals would alter everything about public education that parents in Pennsylvania have come to value, from the ability of teachers to focus on individual students to the elimination of music, arts and sports.
“People like their Friday night football. There would be no Friday night football in Pennsylvania because there would be no sports,” Spicka said.
In a March appearance on WRTA-FM in Altoona, Mastriano voiced objections to Pennsylvania’s system of funding local government and schools through property taxes, citing the burden on senior citizens and the loss of homes in sheriff’s sales when owners can’t pay.
“And that just begs the question, do you ever actually own your property even after you pay it off, even after the mortgage is done, and now you’re paying basically rent to the state government here,” Mastriano said.
Characterizing education spending as wasteful and inefficient, Mastriano said he would eliminate property taxes and reduce annual per-student spending from the statewide average of just over $19,000 to $9,000 or $10,000.
In 2020-21, Pennsylvania ranked eighth in the nation in per-student spending. Only two states, Idaho and Utah, spent less than $9,000 per student, according to the National Education Association.
Mastriano said under his plan, public education funding would go to families with children in the form of school vouchers.
In the radio interview and in a video on his YouTube channel, Mastriano cites the conservative claim that public schools use their platform to indoctrinate students in subjects such as critical race theory – a graduate school discipline that is not taught in public schools.
“That’s going to end on day one of my administration, by the way, but that doesn’t really solve the problem here. We need school choice. You decide if you want to do public school, home school, private school, religious school, and the money goes to the kids,” Mastriano said in the video.
In the minute-long spot, Mastriano says each child would receive $15,000 a year.
“I bet you public schools would clean their act up here because they’re going to have to compete in a marketplace of ideas, rather than having a monolithic grip – a death grip – on what your kids learn,” Mastriano said.
In the radio interview, Mastriano said he’s hopeful that the reduction in spending and improvements in efficiency will offset the loss of property tax revenue, but he acknowledged that increases in sales or income taxes might be necessary.
Mastriano and his campaign did not respond to messages seeking more detail on his plan and a response to the PSEA’s criticism.
A spokesperson for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro said Mastriano’s plan is reckless and would wreak havoc on students, families and teachers who are already struggling.
The proposal is an example of why Mastriano is too extreme to be governor, spokesperson Manuel Bonder said.
“Josh Shapiro believes that students deserve the opportunity to chart their own futures and parents deserve a real voice in their children’s education – and as governor, he will prioritize mental health, empower students with vocational, technical, and computer training, and ensure education dollars are spent wisely to ensure all of Pennsylvania’s children have an equal chance to be successful,” Bonder said.
Nathan Benefield, senior vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think-tank in Harrisburg, called the union’s analysis an attack ad from a political organization that has already endorsed Shapiro.
Benefield argued that voters should be aware that public school enrollment and achievement has declined despite the current spending levels and billions of dollars in reserve.
“The only way to ensure accountability in education is to empower parents with funding that follows students to educational opportunities that best meet their needs,” Benefield said.
Christopher Lilienthal, a spokesperson for PSEA, acknowledged that the numbers in the analysis is the worst-case scenario and that such a plan would have to pass the state legislature.
“We think Pennsylvanians deserve to have a clear picture of what this proposal would mean,” Lilienthal said.
The severity of the impact on school districts depends on several factors such as the degree to which districts rely on property taxes, cost of living and current funding levels. The analysis assumes that the state Education Department would fully fund $9,000 vouchers for students and that all non-property taxes and federal revenue would be unchanged.
Districts that exceed the state average for per-student spending would see the largest decreases.
Lower Merion School District in Montgomery County, which is often cited as an outlier at the highest levels of school spending, would see a 67% decrease. Other districts in suburban Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would be similarly hard-hit. Philadelphia School District, which is chronically underfunded, would see only 19% decrease in revenue, according to the analysis.
Many rural school districts would also see drastic decreases. Wallenpaupack Area School District, in Pike County, would see a 56% decrease in revenue. Gettysburg Area School District, in Mastriano’s Senate district, would see a 32% decrease. Revenue would decrease 17% for the Chambersburg Area School District.
Ed Albert, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, said Mastriano’s proposal is particularly troubling after a historic increase in this year’s budget. That followed seven years of small steps toward recovery from former Gov. Tom Corbett’s $1 billion education budget cut.
“We would have to be insane to support what [Mastriano’s] offering,” Albert said.
Peter Hall is a senior reporter for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.