September 11 — 9:39 am, 2013

Pa. education budget reflects politics, not student needs

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 summer 2013 budget concoction 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 maximum class sizes, an insufficient number of counselors and tutors, little to no art and music, and cuts to programs and personnel. 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 stability, 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.

The legislature made no attempt to determine what funding the 499 other districts needed in order to have adequate budgets. Although 75 percent of the districts reported they are planning to cut languages, music, art, libraries, and books, Harrisburg added only $32.5 million to the basic education budget proposed by the governor. Most of that went to 22 politically connected districts via 14 separate appropriation categories tailored to cherry-pick the selected districts. More failing schools 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 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. 

This comes on top of the $875 million in Corbett administration cuts two years ago to the districts’ instructional budgets. Any claim 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.

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. 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, districts must rely on local property taxes, leaving poor rural and urban districts without the money needed to maintain operations, much less give students the opportunity to meet state standards. 

Failing to provide adequate state funding is only part of the harm to local districts. The governor and General Assembly could not even end the farce of funding cyber-charter schools, 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 district almost $30,000 for each special education student, no matter what the actual cost.

It does not appear that the administration sees any need for a long-term plan to meet the need of providing Pennsylvania’s districts with the proper resources. 

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. The predictable outcome of persistent underfunding and cutbacks will be high rates of student failure. This year’s budget says Harrisburg apparently doesn’t care.  

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

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