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Editorial Board Memo

ED. BD. MEMO: A State Earned Income Tax Credit Should Be Part of a Budget Deal in 2024

By Editorial Board Memo

To: Members of the General Assembly, editorial board members, and political reporters

From: Marc Stier, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Policy Center

Subject: What we are looking for in a budget agreement

Date: July 1, 2024

The Pennsylvania state budget is now officially late. By all reports, however, House and Senate negotiators, as well as the governor’s office, are working diligently to reach an agreement. We are not concerned by a brief delay as we know that the issues under consideration are complex and that necessary compromises are difficult in a divided government.

We do want to set out some criteria by which we will evaluate a successful compromise.

  1. Enactment of a plan to meet our constitutional and moral responsibility to fully and fairly fund our schools, along the lines proposed by the Basic Education Funding Commission and with first-year funding at the level proposed by Governor Shapiro.
  1. A limited tax cut directed toward the Pennsylvanians who most suffer from our upside-down tax system, ideally by instituting a state piggyback on the federal earned income tax cut.
  1. Enactment and funding of the Grow PA program which would provide scholarships of $5,000 to Pennsylvanians attending a wide range of public and private colleges in fields where there is demonstrated need for more trained workers.
  1. A short path to a minimum wage of $15 per hour with a cost-of-living increase.
  1. A substantial new investment in the Whole-Home Repairs program.

We have not commented on the Grow PA program before, which was first proposed by Senator Scott Martin and received unanimous support by the full Senate and the House Education Committee. This proposal has many similarities to a plan called The Pennsylvania Promise, which our previous organization developed in 2018 and Senator Vincent Hughes and Representative Jordan Harris introduced at that time. It also has similarities to Governor Wolf’s Nellie Bly scholarship program. We are gratified that Senator Martin has embraced this set of ideas and has championed them along with other Republican and Democratic senators and House members. While the current plan is not as extensive as some of the earlier proposals, it is a good step in the right direction. And it shows that if Democrats and Republicans focus on the critical needs of the state, they can overcome partisan division and enact proposals that will benefit not just the recipients of these scholarships but, by contributing to economic development in the state, all of us. We hope it is a model for a budget that encompasses the five proposals listed above.

 

 

 

Editorial Board Memo on Education Funding in Pennsylvania

By Editorial Board Memo, Policy Briefs, Press Statement

In February 2023, Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer called for a new funding system in Pennsylvania to fulfill the state’s obligation to provide a thorough and efficient education for its children.

The Basic Education Funding Commission has been charged by Governor Shapiro and legislative leaders with developing a response to Judge Jubelirer’s decision in the school funding lawsuit, which held that every student in Pennsylvania should have—but doesn’t have now—access to a “comprehensive, effective, and contemporary system of public education,” as required by the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The Pennsylvania Policy Center has prepared materials for the Commission that address a number of questions raised during its hearing, drawing on both our own analysis of education policy in Pennsylvania and summaries of the relevant academic research. As members of the General Assembly will ultimately be making the critical decisions about how we fund K-12 education in the state and the public has a strong stake in the Commission’s work, we thought we would share this with you.

This memo summarizes three policy reports.

The first report, Shuffling the Deck Won’t Solve the Pennsylvania School Funding Crisis, addresses the paradox that Pennsylvania has a relatively high level of school funding yet also has a system with the most inequitably funded schools in the country. The result: a majority of Pennsylvania students attends schools that, by the state’s own standards, are inadequately funded. The paper shows that the inequity of Pennsylvania’s school funding is the result of our low state share of K-12 funding. And the inadequacy of funding in most schools, despite a relatively high overall amount of funding, is not just the result of inequity but also arises because the standard set by our constitution requires more than the mediocre school performance found in most states.

The second report, Education Funding and Educational Achievement, reviews the recent academic evidence about the impact of new school funding on student achievement and later-life success. It shows that studies of new state funding of K-12 schools subsequent to court decisions in other states have shown strong, and sometimes, dramatic improvements in the quality  of education.

The third report, The Contribution of K-12 Education to Economic Growth and Democracy, reviews the impressive academic evidence demonstrating that the 19th-century founders of public education in Pennsylvania, starting with Thaddeus Stevens, were right to believe that improvements in the quality of education both strengthen our democracy and lead to faster economic growth.

We summarize the three papers in the rest of this memo.

Editorial Board Memo On Education

Parents Have Rights—But Not to Ban Books

By Blog Post, Editorial Board Memo

The Senate is now considering SB 7, a bill proposed by Senator Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster),which would require schools to “identify sexually explicit content in school curriculum, materials, and books and notify parents that their child’s coursework includes such content or that a book their child wishes to view in the school library contains explicit content.” Parents would have to opt in to allow their children and teens to read or view those materials as part of their coursework and in the library. Without an opt-in, the school would provide the child alternate coursework.

Parents do have some rights to limit what their children read and view. And that right is protected, in part, by US constitutional law.

Federal courts have recognized that a state has a right to mandate that all children receive an education that it deems is necessary for them to be well-informed and productive citizens. The state sets the schoolsoverall curriculum and the details are filled in by school boards, which do with the advice of educated and experienced school administrators, teachers, and librarians. These people have expert knowledge about the kinds of materials that, in the current day and age, are important for children to view and read if they are to have an accurate and empathetic understanding of themselves and the world around them.

Especially in matters that touch their moral and religious beliefs, parents have a right to guide the kind of education their children receive. That right was made part of the US Constitution in 1972 in the Wisconsin v. Yoder (406 US 205) decision. And that right has long been exercised in informal ways by parents who have objected to some of the material their children read or view—and schools typically respect parents views.

In fact, parents are already able to monitor the material their children have access to in school. School curricula and library books are all public. Parents can review what their children read and view with them.

So the basic intent of this bill is in keeping with longstanding practice and our constitutional tradition.

The details of the bill are troubling, however, because they could potentially lead to drastically limiting the variety of material to which children can read and view in school, especially with regard to sexual matters.

It is important for that material to be available for two reasons.

First, every child needs accurate, factual, responsible education about sex and sexuality. Age-appropriate information on health, puberty, sexuality, and sexual relationships keeps our children safe. It helps our teens form appropriate and healthy romantic relationships, and it gives young people the language they need to speak up in the unfortunate chance that they are dealing with sexual abuse.

Second, parents sometimes struggle to understand the issues of sexuality and gender identityraised by their children. (And these are not necessarily cases in which parents object to the material to which their children have access). Sometimes parents refuse to accept their child’s sexual identity. In the worst cases, children face abuse in the home because of their identity or are kicked out entirely. Between 20% and 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ+ children who have been rejected by their parents, a percentage that is far higher than the 7% of children who identify as LGBTQ+. Children who are unsafe at homeand indeed , all childrendeserve to have safe schools that can provide not only a quality education but also a refuge. And even whenparents do not object to their children’s emerging identities, they sometimes do not how to respond helpfully to children who are struggling with issues of sexuality. In these cases, children often turn to information they find in the classroom and school library, as well as to trusted teachers, counselors, and other educational professionals. Thus, it is important that such educational materials be available to students where they’re best able to access it.

So, the proper policy in this area is one that recognizes the rights of parents to monitor and approve the material their children read and view while ensuring that an appropriate range of such material is available to students generally.

The current bill does not appropriately balance these two considerations.

The kind of material that would require parental opt-in is overly broad. The bill requires that parents opt in to allow access to material that is “sexually explicit” but only defines this term in the language of a form parents would be required to sign to allow their children to read or view such material. According to the bill draft, the form must include this language:

By signing this document I am giving permission for my child to be provided books, handouts and instructional material that may include written or visual depictions of sexual conduct. Sexual conduct is defined in law as “Acts of masturbation, sexual intercourse, sexual bestiality or physical contact with a person’s clothed or unclothed genitals, pubic area, buttocks, or, if the person is a female, breast.”

The trouble with this language is that it encompasses too wide a range of material. It could include everything from pornographic depictions of masturbation and sexual intercourse to the kinds of bland, yet accurate, discussions of these same topics in books, pamphlets and videos on sexuality and sexual health to the mild and implicit portrayal of sexual conduct that leave almost everything to the imagination. Under the law, all of this material could be categorized as including written or visual depictions of sexual conduct, and thus would require parental approval.

The legislation’s overly broad language would therefore require formal parental approval for most of the material in a sexual health curriculum as well as for most works of fiction that deal with matters of love and romance.

In addition, this overly broad language could be used by school board members and administrators, acting on their own ideological views or those of activists who pressure them, to require opt-ins for works that discuss any topic they disapprove ofeven if they contain nolanguage or images that most of us would consider as depicting “sexual conduct.” The graphic adaptation of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl has been removed from a library in a Florida school because it includes not a depiction or description but merely a short discussion of innocuous same-sex interaction. It is likely that some activist groups would object to any material discussing same-sex, interracial or premarital sexual relationships on the grounds that they depict “sexual conduct” even though the average reasonable adult would reject that characterization.

Once a letter from the school goes home to parents asking them to opt in to material that are said to “depict sexual conduct as described in a opt-in form that include a range of explicitly described activities that includes bestiality, it is likely that many parents, having no other information about the material except for this categorization, will not opt in. There is no way for parents to know how sexual conduct is depicted in material they are being asked to evaluate.

This process is thus biased towards encouraging parents to say no to any material that school administrators either acting on their own or on behalf of others want to call into question for any reason.

The process is biased against parents granting permission in another way. Parents are not always able to stay on top of the many messages they receive from school. That’s especially true for parents who are economically stressed and especially for single parents with multiple jobs. But it can be true for any parent. Parents who are honest with themselves will remember times when they forgot to fill out some important paperwork sent home from school, especially if they did not think the issue raised by the paperwork was important. So it is likely that at least some parents who would approve of the material they are being asked to evaluate will simply forget to sign the opt-in form.

So the opt-in policy, combined with the designation of certain material as “depicting sexual conductin broad terms and parent inattention, would likely mean that a large number of parents might not allow their children to read or view material. Many parents who, with time to thoughtfully consider the specific materials involved, would not object to the age-appropriatecurricula used to teach their kids, will fail to opt-in because opt-in form itself scares them or because they misplace it or forget to send it in.

It would be bad enough if a process that is biased against making important educational material available to students were to limit only those students whose parents refuse to opt in from seeing it. We fear, however, the bias in registering parental sentiment about certain books, pamphlets, or videos would mean that a minority of parents opt-in. This could lead schools to ban those materials entirely. This would undermine the goals of parents who do not object to the material in question, who want their kids to take sexual education courses or read good literature that deals with sexual and romantic life. Students we be denied access to material that trained educators believe is useful for them. And students who are struggling with their sexuality and/or identity would have no acces to material that could help them.

In effect, the opt-in requirement could lead to a policy in which a minority of parents, without engaging the entire community in discussion, have the ability to ban books and other materials in school libraries and school classrooms.

Our teachers, administrators, and school librarians want what is best for our children, and they are already working in stressful, and often underfunded, conditions. Their efforts would be most effective if parents and teachers could work together for the benefit of children and teens.

The design of Senate Bill 7 does not encourage that process; it stifles it.

A better balance between the interests of parents and the well-being of all children would be struck if the policy were revised in two ways.

First, it should require parents to opt out of their children having access to some material related to sex and sexuality. It is likely that parents who are especially concerned about what their kids read or view at school would be those most likely to review information sent home to them about this subject and thus would be able to decide which materials should not be available to their children. These parents could use their ability to opt out to do what they believe is appropriate for their own children without blocking other kid’s access to this material.

Second, the process created by the bill should be more fine-grained and ask parents to opt out of specific books, pamphlets, videos, and other materials that their children might see in the classroom or school library.  The schools could give parents advance notice of such materials used in course work or available in the library and ask them to review those materials. The school and / or groups concerned about material that depicts sexuality in the schools could provide summaries or relevant excerpts for parents to examine so they could make specific, detailed choices for their children.

This is the only way the proposed legislation would protect the rights of all Pennsylvania parentsnot just some.

By requiring parents to opt out rather than opt in to their children having access to certain materials, and by giving parents the ability to opt out of specific books, pamphlets, videos and the like rather than an entire, quite vague category of material, revised legislation would appropriately balance the rights of parents with other important considerations while avoiding the risk of giving a minority of parents power not only to limit what their children see and read but what every child attending the school can see or read.

Is Harrisburg Ready for Change?

By Blog Post, Editorial Board Memo

October 12, 2023

For Immediate Release

Contact: Kirstin Snow, snow@pennpolicy.org

Is Harrisburg ready for change?

Is new leadership showing a new approach to legislating?

Marc Stier, Executive Director

Since Democrats finally took control in March, we have seen the House of Representatives pass a raft of legislation and budget proposals that not only reflect the priorities of Democrats and progressives but also has broad support in the state.

Little of this legislation has be taken up, however, let alone passed, by the Senate. Three months after the start of the fiscal year, the code bills necessary to complete the budget have not been enacted.

Last week, Democrats took a new approach, one that not only has the potential to finish the budget but could radically change the legislative process in Harrisburg for the better.

In three key areas, House Democrats, led by Speaker Joanna McClinton and Majority Leader Matt Bradford, put forward code bills and legislation that are bipartisan in spirit and detail. They advance Democratic priorities but also recognize Republican priorities, albeit in ways that make them more acceptable to Democrats.

Last Tuesday night, the House passed a tax code bill that offers Republicans net loss operating provisions in the corporate net income tax (CNIT) as well as an acceleration of the cut in the CNIT rate passed in the Wolf administration. In return, the Democrats propose to institute combined reporting for the CNIT. Combined reporting would ensure that multi-state and multi-national corporations doing business in Pennsylvania pay taxes to the state and ensure that CNIT rate cuts don’t make the state deficit bigger. Democrats also propose a state earned income tax credit (EITC) that piggybacks on the federal program, a cost-of-living inflation adjustment to the tax forgiveness program, and an expansion of the dependent care tax credit enacted last year with bipartisan support. The bill balances benefits for corporations with benefits for Pennsylvanians with low incomes. And it provides help for Pennsylvanians with low incomes in the form of tax cut programs long supported by Republicans, not spending programs.

Drafts of the education code bill balance authorization for $100 million in Level Up funding for public schools with expansion of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (the other EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC), programs that provide public support for children attending private schools. And it includes a number of reforms to make these programs more transparent and accountable, which Democrats and Republicans who are concerned about waste in government have supported.

The House also considered an election voting bill that changes the date of the Pennsylvania primary and allows county election boards to pre-canvass mail ballots, which both parties want. It adopted a Democratic proposal to change the mail voting process to reduce the number of rejected ballots and to require counties to take steps to help voters fix incomplete mail ballots. It also includes a new voter ID requirement, which Republicans have long supported. To ensure that legitimate voters are not blocked from voting, the plan gave voters many ways to identify themselves and allows everyone to vote provisionally and show their ID at a later time.

The first two bills passed the House. The voting and election bill failed, in part, because Republicans and Democrats reasonably complained that they did not have enough time to consider it and because the voting reforms got cause up in the dispute about moving the upcoming primary.

None of these packages are perfect from my progressive perspective. In particular, I’d like to see same-day registration instituted in return for Voter ID. But any genuine compromise is likely to have elements that people on both sides don’t like.

Two things are truly impressive about these bills, however.

The first is that Democrats are making an effort to forge bipartisan agreements, not just advance their own agenda. They did the same thing earlier this year in passing a minimum wage bill that paralleled as bill introduced by Senator Laughlin, a Republican.

The second is that they are legislating in public rather than behind closed doors. They are putting forward ideas that they know may be disputed or modified on the floor of the House or in the Senate and challenging the Republicans to do the same.

This is an extremely welcome change from the past when key legislative decisions were made in private meetings of a few people. This was always a bad practice. Without public discussion, debate, and votes, it is impossible for voters to know where the two parties stand or for them to weigh in on the merits or defects of legislation.

So far, the Republican response has been mixed. Republicans in the House unanimously opposed the tax code bill. Republican minority leader Cutler even, complained that the bill wasn’t negotiated behind closed doors before it came to the floor.

The reaction of Republican Senate president pro tempore Joe Pittman to the tax bill was quite different. He called the bill “intriguing” and a “step in the right direction.”

We can hope that, as a new leader, Senator Pittman’s response indicates the potential for Republicans to embrace this new approach to legislating. If both parties in the General Assembly and Governor Shapiro embrace this new legislative approach, they can work out some of the kinks in it by starting the public process of deliberation and debate earlier, giving both parties time to consider legislation in detail. (The House Democrats tried to do this on the budget by passing a budget proposal in the beginning of June, long before the deadline.)

If this new legislative practice takes hold, both parties and our representative democracy will benefit. And Pennsylvania will show other states—and the US Congress—how democracies can best function.

 

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