Rendell: Education investments 'moved the ball forward'
The departing governor thinks his targeted spending increases will live on, but worries about survival of the school funding formula.
By by Dale Mezzacappa and Rajiv Venkataramanan
Gov. Ed Rendell will leave office in a few months confident that he “dramatically moved the ball forward” to improve education in Pennsylvania.
He cites a new funding formula more closely based on student need, rising test scores, more early childhood education, expanded full-day kindergarten, tutoring for more than 100,000 students, and programs to improve schools’ use of technology.
At the same time, he is worried that a Republican takeover of the governorship and both houses of the General Assembly could put the legacy of his eight years at risk.
“If the Republicans have both the governorship and both chambers of the legislature, then I think education funding is in real jeopardy,” he said.
The former Philadelphia mayor is confident, though, that there are some things Republicans won’t be able to reverse. One is the investment in pre-kindergarten and other targeted initiatives like science education and tutoring, distributed to districts each year through Accountability Block Grants rather than through the basic education formula.
“Targeted funding … is probably where we had the most impact,” Rendell said. Before his administration, he said, “We were one of only nine states that did not put a dime into pre-K education, which was just insane.”
Today early childhood education is more available, and there is a state quality-rating system called Keystone STARS. Seventy percent of districts have full-day kindergarten, up from 33 percent.
He points to rising scores on the state PSSA test as evidence of the effectiveness of his initiatives, including the additional dollars, the targeted approach, and the focus on early childhood. According to data compiled by his office, the districts in the state that received the biggest dollar increases showed the greatest reduction in students scoring “below basic” on state tests, especially in math.
This contradicts those who believe funding doesn’t matter, the governor said.
A report by the Center on Education Policy, a research group in Washington, DC, concluded last year that Pennsylvania was the only state where scores on state tests improved in both reading and math at all grade levels between 2002 and 2008.
During an hour-long interview with the Notebook about his education policy and achievements, Rendell was his blunt and colorful self, free of any second-guessing about where his priorities might have fallen short or gone awry.
He said he fully agrees with the Obama education agenda, which relies heavily on promoting charter schools and holding teachers accountable for results, including through the use of student test scores in their evaluations.
“I think it’s a good agenda,” he said. Providing some federal dollars through competitive grants to states that show willingness to adopt certain favored reforms, Rendell said, “is a good idea.” Pennsylvania, however, lost out on getting the biggest of these grants, called Race to the Top.
At the same time, Rendell lambasted school vouchers, which have been endorsed in different degrees by both men running to succeed him, Republican Tom Corbett and Democrat Dan Onorato. Giving taxpayer money to families for use in private schools was also the top education initiative by his predecessor as governor, Republican Tom Ridge.
“The problem with vouchers is not that they don’t work, but they only work for a small percentage of students,” Rendell said. “And if you had the voucher system, you’d be taking the kids with the most focused parents out of the system, and then ignoring the other 92 percent of kids in public education.”
By contrast, he said, his administration “set out to value public education and value our teachers and try to improve the entire funding process.”
But his goal of significantly increasing the state share of education expenditures and bringing all districts to adequate spending levels hit a major snag due to the recession.
“The recession is really a bummer,” he said, “because without it, I think we would have been two-thirds of the way to meeting the ‘costing–out’ study.”
That 2007 study weighed student characteristics, including poverty and English-language status, and concluded that 474 of the 501 districts weren’t spending enough to give all their students an adequate education. It estimated that an additional $4.4 billion was needed.
Rendell didn’t sugarcoat the potential fiscal crisis facing the Commonwealth next year, when a large chunk of federal aid goes away and huge pension obligations come due, and with a recession still ravaging tax revenues. He guesses that it will take at least until 2016 or 2017 to reach state adequacy targets identified in the costing-out study.
Rendell said education advocates should consider it a “victory” next year if state education aid stays the same, because that means the governor and the legislature will have plugged the hole left by the departing federal stimulus money.
Rendell has proposed various ways to raise revenues to avoid a cataclysmic shortfall in the state budget next year. He said Corbett “should have his head examined” for vowing not to raise taxes and also criticized Onorato for declaring that the state’s two biggest revenue raisers, the personal income tax and the sales tax, were off limits.