The recently signed state budget fails to address Pennsylvania’s most pressing issue, reducing our reliance on local property taxes as the primary source for funding public education. Pennsylvania homeowners remain overtaxed and too many school districts are short- changed by our continued use of this antiquated, unfair, and unconstitutional system.
It is hardworking homeowners that are footing the bill for public education. Even worse, the bulk of that is on a select group of property owners due to a provision in the law known as “hold harmless.” This law enacted in 1992 ensured that no school district would receive less funding than it did the year prior, even when its student population declined. So, in school districts where student enrollment decreased, their per-pupil state funding continued to grow. Whereas the school districts where the population grew never received enough funding to cover their growing costs. As a result, many school districts regularly raised local property taxes to make up for the state’s failure to provide needed funds.
When combining both local and state funding, Pennsylvanians pump a lot of money into public education. A 2023 report put out by World Population Review noted that Pennsylvania ranked eighth in terms of per-pupil spending. However, a 2022 WalletHub report found that Pennsylvania ranked near the bottom for the equitable distribution of its education funds. Do you know why? Only one-third of the total education spend comes from the Commonwealth, while the remaining dollars come virtually all from local school property taxes.
Although the inequity of our system has been well-known for decades, there is now a court order mandating a fix to our funding system. While the Court left it to the General Assembly and the Governor to craft a solution, the decision made clear that our overreliance on local property taxes combined with the “hold harmless” provision is at the root of the problem. Knowing about the unfairness of the system, the harm it has caused to homeowners for decades and the existence of a court order, what did Harrisburg leaders do about local school property taxes?
Instead, they championed pet projects that that do nothing to alleviate the crushing burden of school property taxes or fix the inequities in the system. Programs like free school breakfasts, school vouchers, increased Educational Improvement Tax Credits and more level-up funding are mere band-aids that fail to address the structural problems with our school funding system.
Some officials will point to the expansion of the property tax and rent rebate program to demonstrate that they are serious about addressing the school property tax problem. Do not be fooled. The expanded program is projected to help about ten percent of homeowners. Last year 277,000 homeowners benefited from this program. The expansion might help another 100,000. Today, there are over 3.4 million homeowners in Pennsylvania and an additional 52,000 farmsteads, which means 90 percent of homeowners get no benefit. The reality is homeowners are left holding the bag again. They are forced to cough up more in property taxes as they watch the state ignore the fair funding formula, overpay for cyber charter schools, and continue the application of a law that punishes property owners in growing school districts.
Band-aid approaches to education funding and “property tax relief” have made things worse and need to be replaced with real change. That means both chambers, both parties, and the Governor need to sit down at the table and find a better mechanism to fund our schools. Hard working homeowners across Pennsylvania deserve the relief that comes with a total overhaul to the system.
The annual budget dance demonstrates that the only thing that motivates Harrisburg is a real deadline. It is why a constitutional amendment ending property taxes for homeowners by a specific date and requiring the legislature to fix the broken system is the only way to hold Harrisburg leaders accountable. Twice this session, I offered such an amendment calling for ending property taxes for homeowners and farmsteads by 2028 and requiring the General Assembly to come up with replacement revenues. Both times, leaders moved to avoid a vote on the merits in a calculated move to prevent the amendment from getting to the voters.
Real property tax reform is needed now. It is time for homeowners to step forward and make clear to their elected representatives to make property tax reform – a “pet project” and hold them accountable. Demand a vote on setting a firm deadline to end our reliance on local property taxes and create a fairer funding system by a date certain. Without homeowners raising their voices and demanding accountability, Harrisburg will continue to pay lip service to this long-standing problem but offer little in the way of real solutions.
Senator Lisa Boscola (D) represents the 18th Senatorial District in Lehigh and Northampton counties.