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Commonwealth's education budget reflects politics, not student needs

By the Notebook on Jul 5, 2013 11:38 AM

by Michael Churchill

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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Comments (39)

Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on July 5, 2013 1:06 pm
In Pennsylvania the funding formula does not give most legislators a stake in more funding. In districts like Lower Merion or Upper Dublin state in around the 5% or less figure. Only in places like Philadelphia does the state provide over 40% of the budget. So what is the incentive for a Pennsylvania legislator to increase this funding?
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on July 6, 2013 7:55 am
Well, MORALITY, is a word that comes to mind---If most of them had any. Yes, corruption 101, alive and well and killing Democracy in Phila. and other big cities, generally populated by the marginalized, people of color.......but I am now being redundant.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on July 6, 2013 3:45 pm
Joe, I totally agree. I'm glad to hear this from you since you usually don't assume that people in power have much morality. But yes, morality and ethics are very important. And people with a conscience know deep down that it is morally and ethically wrong to fund education inequitably. Per-pupil funding should be equitable. It's not even equal, so equality would be a good start. EGS
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on July 6, 2013 6:26 pm
Someone once said and I paraphrase, "Most powerful people are bad people." It may have been my good friend, Machiavelli.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 5, 2013 1:08 pm
The only option at this point is to institute a recovery school district of charters like New Orleans.
Submitted by K.R. Luebbert on July 5, 2013 2:14 pm
That is not working out so well....
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 5, 2013 4:28 pm
K.R. - You have to know the full background of NOPS. I followed it a few years back. Hurricane Katrina wiped out the schools. Many of the charters within New Orleans are either operated by the school district itself or the State of Louisiana or charter school operators themselves. Even before the hurricane, NOPS had some of the worst schools conceivable. It was that bad.
Submitted by Stewart (not verified) on July 11, 2013 9:52 am
And the excessive infusions of cash (versus the actual public schools) into the Recovery School District (which is run directly by the state, not the local district) has produced exactly the same incremental results as we saw for these schools from before Katrina or charterization. No miracles in sight, just a vastly increased bill for the same (or in some cases even worse) results and a hefty dose of financial mismanagement to go with them. But it's a darling of the privatizers, so all that must be overlooked because they need their miracle...even if they have to create a Potemkin district to do it.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 5, 2013 10:09 pm
Why? So we can crap up the school district so it's as bad as New Orleans. If it was so good Vallas would have stuck around to reap the rewards of it and turn it into the political springboard he's been seeking ever since he got his ass whupped back in the IL governor race. How more corrupt charters do we need? Where will you put the troublemakers and others that charters are currently dumping back into public schools if you make everything a charter?
Submitted by K.R. Luebbert on July 6, 2013 11:27 am
More New Orleans truth--actual facts. Not spin or unverifiable talking points:
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on July 6, 2013 12:21 pm
Kristen, I was trying to take the weekend off but you have given the teachable moment and I can't resist. You, as a fellow reading diagnostician, will understand exactly what I mean. National percentile rankings, state percentile rankings and local percentile rankings are far more useful in naking comparisons across schools and school districts than the arbitrary classifications that are now used -- below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced. Ravitch's article points out that even though the test scores in New Orleans reportedly rose (chuckle chuckle), They are still at the bottom of the state comparatively. I am still waiting for anyone to try to explain what those classifications really mean in behavioral terms. For example, Does proficient mean able to read the Daily News with 90% comprehension, 70%, 50%? Just what does it mean behaviorally? I have been meaning to write a scholarly article about those issues, but of course, I am too bogged down with the issue of who is going to have power and control over our schools and the rights of us all. So what do people think? (1) How do we credibly measure reading achievement and compare school to school, district to district, state to state? (2) A related question is what data do we need to validly and reliably measure growth of reading achievement? And (3) How do we use those measures to design appropriate reading instruction to meet student needs and provide instruction at the appropriate level of challenge commensurate to ability?
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on July 6, 2013 12:40 pm
I would also like to take a moment to say, Thank You very much Mr. Churchill for the excellent article above. I admire you for being able to say it so simply and clearly. It is an excellent commentary.
Submitted by K.R. Luebbert on July 6, 2013 1:43 pm
Many good points, Rich. I have always struggled to understand and to explain to parents what the PSSA categories mean. What does it truly mean to be proficient in Reading (or Math)? As you know some questions on the PSSA (using legally released items as a guide) seem ridiculously easy, and some seem unnecessarily convoluted and confusing. And we certainly NOT say results are comparable across districts or even schools when the testing CONDITIONS are not standardized. Some rooms are comfortable and adequately climate-controlled, and some are too hot, too cold, too crowded, etc.... And, some students (outside Philadelphia) can test with a teacher they are comfortable with and know, and some cannot. These are all things that mess up test results and make them invalid for comparison.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on July 6, 2013 1:05 pm
Yes, it is a whole lot easier to understand and explain percentile rankings and they are a whole lot better for comparing results across schools, districts, and states. That is aside to all of the other credibility of data issues. When we say advanced, what do we mea? "Advanced of what." How do we credibly define those terms? It all goes down to "basic honesty" and "credibility" when we try to make arguments based on "miracles" of test scores. That is what I find so lacking in "all of this" -- basic honesty.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 6, 2013 2:37 pm
Rich - You ask some great questions. The "technical report" that explains the PSSA test itself and on it is graded is over 600 pages long. It takes a PhD in math to fully understand how these tests are graded. It's not like 90 to 100 is an "A". Speaks volumes about how public education has become complicated instead of simple. Therein, lies the problem.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on July 6, 2013 4:23 pm
Rich, Thank you for raising the issue of what the terms advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic mean. The most effective way to define terms is to operationalize them, to define them in terms of behavior. My own understanding, please correct me if I am wrong, is that the more accurate reading assessments are those such as the DRA and Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System. These assessments are useful because they look at fluency, comprehension for both fiction and nonfiction texts, and the teacher or other assessor must conduct an error analysis. These tests provide meaningful results because the reading levels are useful for selecting appropriate instructional level text. I found that in my time at the Mastery school, the emphasis was on moving students to proficient and advanced. But there was never any discussion of what these actually meant. It was just assumed that if students met these criteria, they were succeeding academically or on the tests. My own conclusion is that schools which emphasize the test scores and related terminology -- such as advanced and below basic -- are concerned with meeting AYP and PSSA expectations. Mastery gives benchmarks every 6 weeks, so that students are comfortable taking the tests and so they practice. Other school districts also administer benchmarks, but not as frequently. Doing well on a standardized test is fine as long as it's a byproduct of other learning and minimal preparation for the tests takes place. But I find it troubling that success on standardized tests takes precedence over learning for its own sake or developing a love of learning. Furthermore, multiple choice tests usually cannot properly assess higher order thinking skills because assessing HOTS usually involves looking at the process for coming to the answer, the reasoning, evidence used, and so on. Therefore, questions which assess HOTS well must involve open-ended responses, but the PSSA contains few open-ended questions. y When school psychologists use standardized tests, such as the Woodcock Johnson or WISC, they don't just take the scores at face value, but provide analysis in light of levels of functioning, scores on other tests, and observations from teachers and caregivers. This is how standardized tests should be used---as but one measure of many to help educators see the big picture of how a student is doing and their strengths and weaknesses. EGS
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on July 6, 2013 5:53 pm
You are in the ballpark with your comment. The point is that accurate diagnosis of reading ability and measurement of its growth is not a simple task and it can never be done thoroughly with any single instrument. I could never begin to explain it here. The best and most accurate assessment of reading ability is the 'informal reading inventory" administered to individual students by a certified reading specialist who is well trained in its use. Good reading teachers assess reading ability informally every day during authentic reading activities and they analyze student needs on a daily basis. Then, they implement instruction to meet those needs and develop reading ability. Back in the day we actually taught the students we assessed so we always had our fingers on the pulse of our students, their abilities and disabilities. When we gave assessments, we always gave students immediate feedback and we always gave them in non-threatening situations. The reading tests you speak of here are not those I used and compared the results to real students who I taught so I could not give you an accurate opinion of their validity and reliability. As to the psychological evaluations you mentioned, they have been used for years by school psychologists. Yes, they are standardized by their norms etc., but they are not used as standardized tests as we know them. They are diagnostic instruments. The proper use of standardized reading tests is as a "screening device" to let reading teachers know who possibly has reading needs. The four classifications we use today are developed for and by "the test and punish" mentality. They are little more than arbitrary classifications. They certainly can never be legitimately used to evaluate teachers, which is their purpose. The sad thing is these tests are being used to close schools, and those using them to close schools do not have a clue as to their real meaning.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 5, 2013 10:42 pm
Diane Ravitch is hardly impartial. If you want to know the real outcomes in New Orleans. Unless, you just want to hear the same tired lies.
Submitted by tom-104 on July 5, 2013 10:31 pm
It's not about being impartial. Truth is truth. Facts are facts. What you feel about the messenger has nothing to do with it. Read the comments.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 6, 2013 3:13 am
Ahh. Remember the good old days when budgets didn't reflect politics... No? Me neither. And if Philadelphia wants to spend as much as the surrounding counties, first stop driving away wealthy and middle class taxpayers to said suburbs with punitive taxes that only feed a bloated, unproductive municipal workforce delivering a low quality of service.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 6, 2013 7:47 am
"bloated, unproductive municipal workforce delivering a low quality of service" Such attitudes, which are all about race, are why "wealthy and middle class taxpayers " moved to the suburbs. Let's keep it honest here.
Submitted by Joan Taylor on July 6, 2013 8:53 am
Generalities about the "municipal workforce" enable people to protect themselves from examining the racism and contempt for the working class that underlies such comments. We can expect no help from this crowd, unless we push their own causes, like more tax abatement on luxury properties.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 6, 2013 8:45 am
Actually, this racialist nonsense is a reason for you to avoid talking about the real problem with Philly which is the public sector unions who fight to maintain the cities bloated headcount at 1960's levels. Keeping it honest, Frank Rizzo did more to drive business and wealth out of the city than probably any other mayor. We are still paying for the lavish benefits he doled out in the 1970's. He negotiated with unions by taking their demands and marking them up! Buying PGW so he could create more government sponsored 48 year old retirees (30 and out) and give away free gas to supporters... Wow. No other city in the US tried anything so brazenly corrupt and self-destructive. By the time Wilson Goode came in, the city was already well looted. Not that Goode did anything other than make things worse. Rendell the supposed reformer refused to ever lay anyone off. But this is the nature of the political machine- a coalition built on buying votes of the poor and stupid cheaply to enable corruption at the top. Identity politics is the machine's favourite tool. Certainly much cheaper giving away rich pensions and free natural gas. Rizzo made it work for him better than anyone.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 6, 2013 2:48 pm
Anonymous - No different than here in Pittsburgh. The city has been controlled by democrats for 80 years. The city lost half of its population over the past 30 years to the suburbs. That is a fact. The democrats were in bed with the unions with lavish contracts. The pension fund was underfunded and in crisis mode. As a result, the state came in and took over city finances under Act 47. Sure, there are nice sections of the city, but many sections are run-down and posterchild for urban decay. I remember when the democratic party was for the little guy and working families. Sorry, it's not like that anymore. Not in my book. Agree. Low information voters keep on voting them in.
Submitted by tom-104 on July 6, 2013 5:36 pm
Problem is we haven't developed an alternative party that has a program that represents the needs of 99% of the population.
Submitted by Seth Kulick on July 6, 2013 8:30 am
I like this article because it points out the issues with funding of public education around the state as a whole. There are plenty of potential allies for Philadelphia. Something Dr. Hite could have pointed out instead of basically agreeing that Philadelphia is a cesspool. "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." This is interesting - is there more specific information available about the 22 districts and 14 appropriation categories?
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on July 6, 2013 10:01 am
We don't need any more information. We all know the deal, now what are WE going to do to stop it. Paralysis from too much analysis sets in like a dog chasing its tail. WE GET IT already--------------------what can we do to stop it before it kills us ??
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 6, 2013 10:05 am
Don't agree Joe. This is the weakness in your argument. You think action without theory is the way forward. What can we do to stop it? For that we need information to plan strategy and tactics. Without theory you are in a mindless vacuum and no one can develop a way forward.
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on July 6, 2013 12:12 pm
I agree but at what point do we stop "gathering information" and start ACTING?? Lincoln replaced McClellan because Lincoln claimed he had the "slows." McClellan claimed he was gathering information. Lincoln said, "Your ass is out a here," and he put Grant in charge. Rumor has it that Abe also said, McClellan, you're slow as shit, scum bag." Actually, I don't believe that rumor but who knows??
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 6, 2013 12:52 pm
Important question, Seth. Is this another example of pork barrel spending? Which 22 districts / 14 appropriation categories were approved? Who benefits? Who loses? Which legislators are responsible?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 6, 2013 2:39 pm
I like in the same school district as Tom Corbett and from what I saw, he increased funding for my district. Thank you Tom. You need a representative or senator that you fight for you. Right now, Philly has none since Fumo went to prison. I notice how the politicians (state and federal) here in Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas live in the best school districts in their legislative district. The politicians in the city live in a few "select" areas and they send or sent their kids to private schools. They don't live in the run-down sections of the city.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 6, 2013 10:03 am
It's tough to give up the freebies, but we'll survive.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 6, 2013 11:12 am
Time to bulldoze the Philadelphia school district and start from scratch starting at the top.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 6, 2013 11:59 am
I remember not so long ago when you didn't find idiotic, meaningless comments like this in the Notebook.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 6, 2013 3:39 pm
Anonymous - His comment is not too far off base. I went to a crew race on the Schuklkill River. I drove up from Fairmont Park near (I believe) 30th street. Then, down to Center City. It looked bad, real bad. For a moment, I thought I was in the third world.
Submitted by concerned citizen (not verified) on July 6, 2013 4:40 pm
Hey, people, we're all in this together.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 7, 2013 7:01 pm
We need to change the title of the article. It should read "Budget reflects reality and not teachers union wants".
Submitted by anon (not verified) on July 7, 2013 9:16 pm
spoken like a true fracker. whose reality? corbett's? do you personally profit from corbett's choices? or worse yet, are you just a sheep being led around by the nose? i guess reality for you is whatever they tell you it is. how sad to buy into their twisted priorities and accept it as some kind of immutable truth. there are choices being made all the time here. unfortunately, our politicians are beholden to the interests of the 1% who bribe them and their policies reflect that. stock market is juiced while employment market is ignored. record profits for corporations while austerity is prescribed for the rest of us. banker's contracts are written in stone while workers' contracts are honored if/when convenient. prisons are built while schools are closed. capitalists are selfless and altruistic while teachers are selfish and greedy. up is down, left is right, good is evil if it fits their agenda and you want us to embrace that as reality.
Submitted by Veteran of the WPHS "Renaissance" (not verified) on July 9, 2013 12:31 am
Mr. Churchill, You are a lawyer -- what can be done using the law to go after corrupt politicians and an administration that violates the state constitution by underfunding education? Is this a route that we could take and who would initiate it? That PA is 42nd in the state contribution to education -- are we in the Jim Crow south? Is this really the second decade of the 21st century?

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