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Commonwealth's education budget reflects politics, not student needs

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by Michael Churchill

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Pennsylvania’s state constitution charges the General Assembly with providing the state's residents a “thorough and efficient system” of public education “to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” Harrisburg’s budget concoction, slapped together at the last minute, speaks more to politics than to serving the needs of the Commonwealth’s 1.75 million students who are dependent upon adequate state funding. It is a prescription for personal tragedies and a declining state economy. Unless you are a person with a stake in promoting failing schools, it is a terrible budget.

In Philadelphia, the Republican governor and legislature avoided forcing a virtual shutdown of the schools. But, at the same time, they have so severely limited their assistance, they left the District maimed with class size at the maximum, an insufficient number of counselors and tutors for students in deep need of help, little to no art and music, and cuts to programs and personnel, leaving the District barely able to provide basic services. And much of that insufficient aid is tied to unknown, “provoke a fight with the union” conditions still to be set by the state. Instead of school stability for students, the state budget opts for turmoil. No matter how the dust settles, each Philadelphia student will have at least $2,000 less spent on their education than the average student in the surrounding four counties, equivalent to $50,000 a classroom, even though suburban districts have, on average, far fewer students in poverty or who are English language learners. Harrisburg’s message was that successful education is less important than scoring political points and avoiding finding new revenue.

Around the rest of the state, the legislature made no attempt to determine what funding the 499 other districts needed in order to have adequate budgets to serve students. Although 75 percent of the districts reported they are planning to cut instructional programs -- languages, music, art, libraries, and books -- Harrisburg added only $32.5 million to the basic education budget proposed by the governor, and most of that went to 22 politically connected districts via 14 separate appropriation categories tailored to cherry-pick the selected districts. More failing schools, not fewer, will be the outcome.

In the end, the total increase in basic education funding over last year was $122.5 million. This is less than the districts’ share of increased pension costs (created by Harrisburg mandate), which is estimated to be more than $160 million statewide. What this means is that the districts will have less to spend on actual instructional costs for students unless they have the ability to raise local taxes enough to cover all of their increased costs for health benefits, heating oil, salaries, etc., as well as the remaining  pension increases. And this comes on top of the $875 million in Corbett administration cuts two years ago to the districts’ instructional budgets. Any claims that there have been record state education appropriations is based on the $800 million in additional payments for the state share of Social Security and pension costs over the last three years. None of that goes to meeting the districts’ current instructional costs for students.

Pennsylvania appropriates less per student than any of the surrounding states, including West Virginia, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and the state’s share of the total cost of education was only 35.8 percent, making it the eighth-lowest in the country. Because of this parsimonious state support, districts must rely on local property taxes, leaving poor rural and urban districts without the money needed to maintain operations, much less give all students the opportunity to meet state standards. No wonder Philadelphia, York, Harrisburg, Reading, Scranton, Chester-Upland and other districts are in such financial distress -- politicians in Harrisburg are failing to do what is necessary to adequately fund schools. As a consequence, the state itself has found that more than 50 percent of the students who took its Keystone Exams had scores which were “not satisfactory.”

Failing to provide adequate state funding is only part of the harm to local school districts generated by Harrisburg. The governor and General Assembly could not even end the farce of funding cyber-charter schools as if they had the same costs as a brick-and-mortar school, much less force any accountability for the use of public funds onto the brick-and-mortar charter schools, some of which are draining from their local school district almost $30,000 for each special education student enrolled, no matter what the actual cost.

Alarmingly, it does not appear that the administration sees any need for a long-term plan to meet the need of providing Pennsylvania’s school districts with the resources necessary to prepare their students to be productive members of the workforce who are able to support their families. It has no plan to restore the instructional funds that were cut three years ago because of the economic crisis. It does not plan to assess what districts actually need to meet their responsibilities to students and it ignores the 2007 study that the legislature commissioned. It has abandoned any pretense to using a formula geared to need rather than politics. It is hard to see the state as attractive for employers looking for competitive workers or for parents looking for places to educate their children. The predictable outcome of persistent underfunding and cutbacks will be high rates of student failure -- with all the human tragedy and economic costs that entails. This year’s budget says Harrisburg apparently doesn’t care.   

Michael Churchill is an attorney at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.


The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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