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Investing more in students is what matters

“The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”

— Education clause in the Pennsylvania Constitution

This clause from the Pennsylvania Constitution serves as a reminder of this important mandate … yes, this decree … to the Legislature, citizen taxpayers and voters.

Providing thorough opportunities for public education at a reasonably affordable price is something our Founders understood as being integral to the Commonwealth’s existence — and future.

This takes us to Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to divert $204 million from the Race Horse Development Trust Fund, which receives money from slots gaming in Pennsylvania casinos, to a new scholarship program designed to help low- and middle-income, full-time students who attend the 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. Those universities include Lock Haven, Mansfield and Bloomsburg in our region.

The governor’s idea is a good one.

But, we say, leave a piece of the funding for the Race Horse Development Trust Fund to support the various race tracks, breeders and associated agricultural-based employees with some of the money. It is, after-all, funded by gambling money.

Pennsylvania is rich in institutions of higher learning, though college enrollment here and nationwide is generally down. The baby boom that drove class sizes up in the 20th century has been replaced by a trend toward smaller families and, yes, fewer high school graduates. That has left most of the 14 state-run schools having to right-size and reconfigure.

And with the daily retirement of more and more baby boomers, the size of the workforce is shrinking as well. That means fewer tax dollars are being collected.

That has made the Keystone State in need of college graduates to fill the jobs of the present and future. It is proper that the governor and Legislature get serious about tackling this issue before it becomes a full-blown crisis.

Gov. Wolf has proposed a new scholarship program — with an estimated price tag of $200 million — that is aimed at helping more otherwise-qualified students from low- and middle-income families afford college. His plan is limited to those who choose to attend one of the 14 state-run universities.

In addition to the $204 million for the Nellie Bly Scholarship Program, the governor’s proposed budget invests in higher education with $12.9 million to support PASSHE’s system redesign and a $60 million increase for the Pennsylvania State Grant Program, which serves more than 130,000 students and will increase the maximum award to $4,700.

We find wanting to help kids attend school without incurring a mountain of debt to be admirable.

But the governor would be wise to consider the opinion of those who want the scholarships open to any community or four-year college or university in Pennsylvania.

If students are going to be given scholarships, why not allow them to choose the school that best fits their desired educational path?

Not only will that make things better for students in the program, that will incentivize schools to streamline and improve the quality of their curriculum to attract more students.

That benefits all students, even those not eligible for this scholarship money.

Who would oppose this?

Yes, it comes down to priorities, and we side with those who want to invest in students more than investing in horse racing.

We are encouraged by the seemingly-bipartisan support for this proposal and hope an agreement will be found soon.

Pennsylvania’s status as an economic leader of the future very much depends upon it.

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