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Corbett budget ushers in a new reality

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Low-income children and students of color across the state were hard hit by the budget approved in Harrisburg on June 30, with Philadelphia in particular singled out for negative treatment as lawmakers haggled over a final spending plan, according to some education advocates and District officials.

The final $27.15 billion budget slashed education spending by nearly a billion dollars across the state, with Philadelphia absorbing more than a quarter of those cuts, close to $300 million, even though it educates only 10 percent of the Commonwealth’s children.

Little of the funding restored by the legislature went to Philadelphia. In one case, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were the only high-need urban districts excluded from a restoration of funds.

Overall, the final budget will cut Philadelphia’s per-pupil funding by about $1,300 per student. It already spends far less per student than many of the wealthier surrounding suburbs.

Since it fell short of its goal of getting $57 million in additional funds from the state, the District is now facing an additional $35 million in cuts, which will likely mean more layoffs besides the more than 3,400 already put into place to close a $629 million shortfall, according to the District’s chief financial officer, Michael Masch.

While Gov. Rendell was driven by concerns over equity and adequate resources for school districts, Gov. Corbett has anchored his education policy in privatization, the growth of charters, and vouchers that students can use in private schools. He and his education secretary, Ronald Tomalis, are also on the record saying that they discount any correlation between higher spending and better outcomes for students.

“The real agenda is to corporatize public education and take that funding stream and give it to private entities,” said Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Philadelphia Democrat. “This governor clearly has in his mind an attempt to boldly change public education from what we know it to be. We need to be thoughtfully prepared for the sea change that may be hitting us.”  

Others said that the budget simply reflected political realities. “This was an education deal that worked for Republican districts,” said Donna Cooper, who was a top adviser to Rendell. “The whole notion that money should follow need is out the window.”

Rep. James Roebuck, Democratic chair of the House Education Committee, said the budget “is clearly designed to hurt poor school districts and benefit rich school districts. That is wrong, especially when Republicans are choosing to leave up to $700 million in unexpected [surplus] revenue untouched."

The plan hammered out by the Republican governor and legislature effectively reversed the priorities of the Democratic Rendell administration, which were to increase the state share of education spending relative to the local share, narrow funding gaps among rich and poor districts, and make sure all districts had enough resources to effectively educate their students.

“This has the effect of undoing much if not all the progress made over the last three years toward more equity and more adequacy,” said Ron Cowell of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, a Harrisburg advocacy organization.

In 2008, the state enacted a funding formula for allocating state dollars to school districts with the goals of “equity and adequacy.” It was based on a “costing-out” study that determined what each school district should have, based on characteristics including poverty level, number of English language learners, local tax base, and other factors.

The study said, for example, that Philadelphia needed to spend $1 billion more annually to adequately educate all its students, high numbers of whom live in poverty, must learn English, or have other special needs.

While the formula is still in place, how the budget was handled this year “seems to be the end of any commitment to close the adequacy gaps that were identified by the costing-out study,” said Cowell, a former Democratic legislator. Pennsylvania has one of the largest gaps between rich and poor districts in the nation. The legislature removed from the school code a non-binding provision calling for adequacy goals to be reached by 2015.

“Clearly there are people in Harrisburg who believe that school districts collectively have plenty, and there are others who want to starve public education,” said Cowell.

The governor said he didn’t want to use the expected surplus to offset any budget cuts because there are obligations coming down the road for pensions and other long-range payments.

But given the magnitude of what school districts will be required to slash – teachers, counselors, social services, art and music, sports – Cowell said that failing to use the estimated $700 million surplus for education “is like saying we won’t buy food or clothes for the kids because we have a mortgage.”

Corbett originally proposed a budget with more than $1.1 billion in K-12 education cuts. The legislature restored $228 million of that amount.

In making the restorations, little consideration was given to the factors that generally drive state aid to districts – overall enrollment, wealth as measured by its average household income and property values, and the percentage of students living in poverty.

Instead, the first $100 million was distributed to make sure that each district in the state got at least the same amount that it did in 2009, regardless of any changing circumstances.

“Even if its enrollment went down or its property wealth went up, it got the money,” said Michael Masch, the Philadelphia School District chief financial officer and the former state budget director under Rendell. Of the 501 districts in the state, 349 shared in this pot, but not Philadelphia.

One result of this approach is that the wealthy district of Trediffryn-Easttown got 83 percent of its initial cuts restored, while Philadelphia and poorer suburban districts like William Penn got little or nothing.

Another $100 million was put into Accountability Block Grants, devised by Rendell to funnel money into programs like early childhood education and full-day kindergarten. Corbett had zeroed out that funding stream; the $100 million restored by the legislature represented a 61 percent cut from the $259 million in the 2010-11 budget. Philadelphia got $22 million of the restored money.

But the city would have gotten a larger share if the legislature had decided to distribute the $100 according to the regular block grant formula, which is heavily weighted by factors such as poverty.

“They picked a way of distributing that money that was most painful for Philadelphia,” said Baruch Kintisch of the Education Law Center. “They didn’t have to do it that way, they had other alternatives.”

The third pot was $28 million put back in the budget by the Senate.

Masch said the money was earmarked for urban districts with a high “aid ratio” – meaning low property wealth and low household income – but only if its enrollment was below 20,000 students. “That leaves out … Philadelphia,” said Masch.

And despite Philadelphia’s pleas for $57 million in charter school reimbursement funds, both the governor and the legislature zeroed out that line item. Philadelphia has half the charter schools in the state, so it felt the biggest impact of that decision. In 2010-11, Philadelphia got $112 million in charter school reimbursements.

Philadelphia’s City Council approved $53 million in additional taxes and fees for the District in an effort to show Harrisburg that the city was doing its part and therefore deserved more state aid. But that failed to convince legislators that the state should also step up to help the city.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s sudden decision to save full-day kindergarten by shifting some of its federal aid also provided legislators with fodder to deny the city additional dollars. According to advocates, some legislators concluded that her action showed that the District has enough Title I money – federal funds targeted to disadvantaged students – to meet crucial needs.

Kintisch, despite being a veteran of Harrisburg give-and-take, said this year’s events shocked him.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “I’ve been quite open since the beginning of the budget season saying that Philadelphia was not going to be singled out for bad treatment, that folks had too much respect for the process to manipulate it so badly. But I was wrong.”

 

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.