State, educators hold opposing views on funding policies
A major disconnect exists between Harrisburg policy -makers and people who must live with their policies on funding education.
One side — legislators and Gov. Tom Corbett administration officials — claims public education funding by the state has increased.
The other side — teachers, school administrators and school board members — argues that not only has public education funding decreased, the proportionate distribution of what remains is tilted away from poor school districts and toward wealthy ones.
Bruce Baker, a professor of education at Rutgers University in New Jersey, is in the latter camp.
Baker is author of the “Most Screwed local Public School Districts Update 2009-2011.” It asserts that education funding is often inequitable to less affluent districts with higher poverty rates in many states. Pennsylvania has 11 school districts on the “Most Screwed” list, including New Kensington-Arnold and Highlands.
“Pennsylvania has just not put up the effort and it has a system that is heavily reliant on local property taxes,” Baker said.
Corbett's 2011 budget, his first year in office, rocked the public education community across Pennsylvania.
Millions of dollars in state aid to public schools were slashed, leading local school boards to cut programs and furlough scores of teachers. It was done to fulfill Corbett's pledge to return basic education funding to 2008-09 levels, before federal stimulus money was allocated to school districts.
The Valley News Dispatch sought comment for this story from the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the offices of state Rep. Paul Clymer, R-Bucks, chairman of the House Education Committee, and state Rep. James Roebuck Jr., D-Philadelphia, the committee minority chairman.
Tim Eller, spokesman for the Department of Education, and Clymer responded by email, but neither commented directly on the “Most Screwed” update.
“State support of public schools is at an all-time high of $9.75 billion in 2013-14 — up from $8.58 billion in 2010-11,” Eller wrote. “State support of public schools has increased by $1.17 billion, or 14 percent, under Governor Corbett.”
Clymer, also in an email response, wrote, “Education is and always has been a top priority in Pennsylvania. The 2013-14 General Fund budget provides a record $10 billion for K-12 education. The 2013-14 Basic Education Funding Formula drives two-thirds, or $3.7 billion of the $5.5 billion it distributes, to the poorest 250 school districts in the state, while the wealthiest half get only one-third, or $1.8 billion of the funding.”
Roebuck, Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, and Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Administrators Association, say that state funding of schools is not equitable. They say that the inequity is a result of one thing in particular.
“Our own research and the research of the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania shows that Pennsylvania is one of only three states that does not have a fair, accurate and transparent method of funding education,” Keever said.
Keever said Act 61 of 2008 established an education funding formula that was fair, transparent and based on need.
“Pennsylvania students were showing academic gains almost across the board for several years,” Keever said. “There was a lot of indication that it was working.”
“When Tom Corbett became governor, he just abandoned that commitment, he abandoned that formula,” Roebuck said. “It's all done in a fairly arbitrary way,” Roebuck said. “There is nothing there that addresses poverty as a factor in education. We have totally taken that out of the discussion. We don't make a serious attempt to address that.”
As for meeting a district's needs, he said, “When a district doesn't have a tax base that is broad, the inequity is even greater because the district has no resource to reach back into to address that.”
“We have school districts that spend $21,00 to $22,000 per student and we have districts that spend $11,000,” Buckheit said. “How can you argue that the students in those districts have anything close to equality in education programs?”
On the matter of cuts by Corbett and the use of federal funds, Keever said: “The Corbett administration continues to play a shell game with education funding. The fact is there really was a cut.”
The Corbett administration and Republican legislators claim previous governor, Democrat Ed Rendell, cut the state's basic education funding and filled the void with federal stimulus money that did not extend beyond 2010.
“The Basic Education Funding (BEF) line item was reduced by the previous administration nearly $500 million over two years to $4.73 billion in 2010-11,” Eller said.
“Schools are receiving less federal money now than they did in 2010-11 — that's a fact. However, schools are receiving more state dollars now than they did in 2009-10 and 2010-11,” he said. “The BEF line item alone increased $794 million (17%) since (Corbett) has been in office.”
Keever, Buckheit and Roebuck agree that the state's share of the Basic Education Funding line item was cut and replaced by stimulus money when Rendell was governor.
“What I remember was that, when we got to the point that the stimulus money came in, it was basically the Republican-controlled Legislature that reduced education funding and backfilled it with the federal stimulus money,” Roebuck said. “The Democratic governor never had the power to do that on his own because he never controlled both houses of the Legislature.
“When the stimulus funding came to an end, Congress expected the states to maintain funding for public schools, not defund them as the Corbett administration did,” Keever said.
Keever and Roebuck said that included a freeze in special-education funds, elimination of funds for reimbursing public schools for having to pay charter school tuition, funds for tutoring and dual high school/college enrollment programs for high-achieving students and a big reduction in accountability block grants, many of which are used to pay for kindergarten programs.
Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.