A plan for our K-12 public schools


Our funding of public schools is inequitable, and Delaware County public schools are harmed as a result.

As it stands, only about 8% of basic education funding is fairly divided among Pennsylvania's 500 school districts. The remaining 92% is broken down along arbitrary, politicized lines that result in our community paying even more in local property taxes as a result.

Communities like Upper Darby pay more in property taxes and make difficult decisions to close their unnecessary budgetary shortfalls year after year.  We all deserve better.

We should be asking where the rest of the money is and when it will be coming, not thanking legislators in Harrisburg for pennies on the dollar in one-time grants.  Working families deserve political courage, not more excuses.

SOLUTION #1: Every dollar of Pennsylvania’s basic education funding should go through the Fair Funding Formula. Period.

As a legislator, I will meet with every legislator I can to convince them of the moral imperative to fund our schools equitably. A zip code should have no bearing on a student's constitutional right to their K through 12 education. I will also meet with any constituent in the Commonwealth and provide them with the tools to organize within their own communities. Finally, I will fiercely advocate for tax policies that ensure corporate interests will pay their fair share. This will make it easier for our colleagues in Western Pennsylvania to support a fair funding formula that is universally enacted. (More on those policies in the next section!)

Our public schools are not funded adequately, and haven’t been for decades. Our state legislature has done little to address that issue.

In 2007, a state legislative study called the Costing Out Study was conducted to gain a better understanding of the inadequacies of our public education funding in Pennsylvania, and how addressing these failures could improve educational outcomes for students. Here's an excerpt of note: "The statewide costing out estimate to reach 100 percent student proficiency and other performance expectations is $21.63 billion. This level of spending, with inflationary increases over time, is required for all students to meet Pennsylvania’s performance expectations and academic standards."  Over a decade later, we aren't even close to doing that.

Years after this report, the state legislature chose to enact the concept of fair funding - but only on a limited basis. Importantly, the legislature did nothing to ensure that there would be adequate money for that fair funding model.  As a result, more than half of Pennsylvania's K-12 funding comes from local revenue streams (like property taxes). Because we still haven't recovered completely from Gov. Corbett's cuts to public schools, short term planning has become a norm for school boards across the Commonwealth, just trying to remain in compliance and serve students. The state legislature even limits the ability of school boards to make up for revenue shortfalls while simultaneously underfunding our schools. Enough is enough.

SOLUTION #2: Our tax policies need to start serving Pennsylvania families  rather than the corporate interests that bankroll political campaigns.

We're currently the only state that allows fracking and doesn't require a severance tax. We need to enact a Marcellus Shale drilling tax, like the one proposed by Governor Wolf. The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center estimates that such a proposal would bring $1.7 billion into state coffers over the next five years, if passed. You can count on me to vote on this proposal if it comes to my desk.

We also need to close the Delaware Tax Loophole, a terrible policy that allows multi-national corporations to benefit from Pennsylvania customers while paying no state taxes to Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center estimates that this would bring another $400 to $600 million into our coffers.

Finally, we need to follow other states and legalize, tax, and regulate the sale of marijuana. We don't have enough money for our schools, we are sending our neighbors to prison for non-violent offenses, and studies have shown that marijuana could be a key component in the fight against opioid addiction. The legalization, regulation, and sale of marijuana could bring millions of dollars to our doorstep for our schools.

Pennsylvania fails to fund school renovation projects adequately (and currently, at all).

The majority of us don't realize that huge capital investments and renovation projects for our school districts are funded through a state reimbursement program called PlanCon. This program has a bunch of problems, including an arduous, convoluted application process that few school districts have the means or the institutional knowledge to complete correctly and in a timely manner, late reimbursement payments, and currently, $0 in funding for the program.

Richer school districts don't bother with it because it's actually easier to spend local dollars to complete projects independently, and poorer school districts don't bother with it because they don't have the resources to figure it all out. School districts with some funding adequacy don't even have this program to fall back on, and across the Commonwealth, school facilities are decades behind on basic repairs.

SOLUTION #3: The restoration and renovation of our
children's school facilities must be a top priority.

The legislature needs to evaluate and prioritize renovation projects in school districts and fund them as soon as possible, so we can send our children to schools that reflect how much we care about them. The application process needs to be simplified and the reimbursements need to be guaranteed to school districts upon approval.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education should start with the most dire of construction projects and move through the queue until Pennsylvania is caught up to present day. If unsafe school buildings for our kids and deplorable working conditions for our teachers and staff are acceptable, state legislators should be required to experience such working conditions as well until they choose to fix these problems.

Our education policies focus on short-term fixes out of a sense of fear and urgency, rather than the long-term planning Pennsylvanians deserve.

The onerous array of standards that are placed on school districts before being swiftly changed to suit the needs of lobbyists and industries are yet another weight on our communities. Meanwhile, our school districts don't have enough money to update school books or pay teachers and support staff a professional wage.

SOLUTION #4: The Pennsylvania Department of Education's evaluation of school districts should be for the sole purpose of directing resources toward the most critical investment areas, like restoration of staff.

School districts should have the funding and support from the Department of Education to be able to restore staff and programs to support these efforts, not tests to reassert that their community is failing. Solutions should be community-based and individualized, so that resources like small business relationships, nonprofits, and community health centers can be integrated into the school community - a community schools approach. Corporate interests have no place in our schools.

While funds are hard to come by, our state legislature continues to make that problem more dire, by proliferating charter and cyber charter schools and failing to hold them accountable.

We have the worst charter school laws in the country. While our public schools are underfunded to an unconstitutional degree, under regulated, opaquely run charter schools with a mixed record of academic achievement continue to proliferate. Basic reforms now can protect students and the taxpayer.

SOLUTION #5: Cyber charter schools should not exist except on an extremely limited basis, and all brick and mortar charter schools should be subject to the same open records, Sunshine Act, and auditing processes and standards as school districts, period.

All financial records and inherently public documents should be accessible to the public when it comes to charter schools in Pennsylvania. All board meetings should be public, and funding streams for charter schools should not be more advantageous than that for our public schools. Academic studies have shown that charter schools have a racial segregation effect, so we should hold charter schools accountable to enrollment processes to protect students of color, students who have individualized education plans, students who speak other languages, and students who are traditionally discriminated against at some of these educational institutions.

Teachers are leaving the field because we’ve failed to provide them with the safe, professionalized environment they all deserve.

Our schools are in disrepair, a constant wave of standardized test requirements driven by lobbyists invade our classrooms, and our school districts are struggling to keep good, motivated teachers in the classroom. In addition to this overall effect, new studies have shown the detrimental impact these policies have on students of color, who see a constant turnover of well trained teachers from their classrooms.

SOLUTION #6: Our teachers and support staff are the cornerstone of our communities. Our teachers should be provided with access to training opportunities. All of our support staff should be paid a living wage. Our people are our most valuable resource.

Teaching conditions are learning conditions, and our teachers and support staff have the hardest and most important job in the world, molding our communities and guiding our young people toward achieving all that is possible. Countries that value public education compensate their teachers correctly, provide them with regular training, then most important of all, trust that same training in the classroom. We must support our educators' right to collectively bargain, because more often than not, what they negotiate for directly makes the lives of students better.

The Pennsylvania Constitution states, among many things, that students are entitled to a “thorough and efficient system of public education”. The state legislature’s inaction to address major inequities and inadequacies is unconstitutional.

Most Pennsylvania families have no idea about all the rights their children have in the classroom, but that does not make these violations acceptable.

SOLUTION #7: When our students are going to schools that do not meet the basic requirements of the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Pennsylvania School Code, they should have a straightforward way to report that to Department of Education and the legislature for prompt remediation.

All students and families should be able to easily report non-compliance with educational rights, whether these are in regards to curricula, special educational rights, learning conditions, or any other unfair practice that has resulted from the underfunding of our schools.

Friends of Mike Zabel