A Strong State Commitment to Public Education, A Must Have for Pennsylvania’s Children

Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, April 30, 2014

This report examines school funding in Pennsylvania, focusing on the city of Philadelphia and on other low-income school districts. The report highlights recent funding cuts, and the policy choices that led to these cuts. The end of the report suggests some alternative – and better – choices that Pennsylvania might make regarding state school funding and tax policies going forward.

The scale of recent funding cuts in Philadelphia and other low-income districts has been unprecedented. Since 2011 Philadelphia has experienced a $294 million drop in state school funding. Philadelphia educates 12% of Pennsylvania’s school students but experienced 35% of statewide school funding cuts.

State education funding cuts have affected all school districts, but targeted those with the poorest students. Philadelphia ranked first with cuts of $1,351 per student, followed by Chester-Upland ($1,194), York City ($1,096) and Southeastern Greene, a rural district ($1,022). Meanwhile some wealthy suburban districts experienced cuts of only $36 to $59 per student. Statewide, three years after close to $1 billion in state reductions to classroom funding, 54% of per student cuts remain.

Within Philadelphia, state funding cuts, and the siphoning off of state school funding to charter schools, have wreaked tangible devastation on schools and children. For example, since 2011, the School District of Philadelphia has reduced its school counseling staff by over half, its central administration and support staff by nearly half, its school nurses by nearly a third, and its early childhood teachers by one fifth.

More than 800 parents from 70 schools have filed complaints with the Pennsylvania Department of Education alleging denial of necessary educational services to their children in 2013. Educational enrichment programs that help students get into competitive colleges have all but come to an end, including Northeast High School’s acclaimed Space Research Center (SPARC), debate, dance, science Olympiad and other programs. With roughly 1 nurse for every 1,250 students, parents have been particularly concerned about health for their children. The lack of an onsite nurse is thought to have possibly contributed to the death of 12-year old Laporshia Massey following an asthma attack that began at school.

Other hard-pressed districts across the Commonwealth have also closed schools, increased class sizes, cut instructional personnel, and ended music, arts, and sports programs. Based on a survey of school districts, the Pennsylvania School Boards and School Business Officials declared that the “the financial condition of Pennsylvania’s public schools declined from “difficult” in 2011-12 to “desperate” for 2012-13.

Recent trends follow the state’s history of underfunding schools, with Pennsylvania ranked 10th lowest for the state share of school funding. Low state funding makes schools dependent on local income and wealth, leading to large gaps in funding between affluent and poor districts and a “D” for funding equity on one recent national report card.

Over two Pennsylvania gubernatorial administrations, the state began to recognize the problem of low state funding and then launched a bipartisan effort to close a $2,400 per student gap between actual funding and levels adequate to support a quality education for all children. Philadelphia’s shortfall to achieve funding adequacy was 75% higher than the statewide average gap, $4,184 per student.

Funding cuts since 2010, however, have undone initial progress towards funding adequacy, leading Philadelphia’s District Superintendent Dr. William Hite to lament only weeks before the current school year that stopgap funding would “allow us to open the doors of the school” but “not do enough for what goes on behind those doors.”

State education funding cuts have come at the same time as federal funding for preK-12 education declined and the local property tax base has been constrained by a slow recovery, falling property values, and the state tightening caps on annual increases in local school funding.

Recent Pennsylvania public school funding trends reflect a trifecta of misguided policy choices.

The first choice was an effort to balance the state budget through cuts in public services. Pennsylvania’s education funding cuts translated into 20,000 lost jobs in public education, which also held back private job (and revenue) growth as reduced spending by school employees rippled through local economies. Pennsylvania’s job growth since January 2011 ranks 49th of the 50 states.

At the same time that the commonwealth was reducing education spending, the state moved forward with several large corporate tax cuts, some of which continue to phase in even now. Since 2003, the value of Pennsylvania corporate tax cuts has more than tripled, and in 2013-14 the tax breaks have a value equivalent to nearly one-third of the total prek-12 education budget. The state also failed to enact a severance tax on natural gas drilling.

Third, Governor Corbett and the General Assembly diverted additional funding for alternatives to public schools, despite the impact of funding cuts on public education and the commonwealth’s economic recovery. The commonwealth now supports four separate systems: private and sectarian schools, charter schools, and online “cyber charters,” as well as public schools. Expansion of these parallel systems has particularly affected districts like Philadelphia with high poverty populations. By 2013-14, for example, payments to charter schools represented 30% of Philadelphia school district’s operating budget.

Pennsylvania’s deep cuts in education funding singling out the most vulnerable districts fly in the face of overwhelming evidence that concentrated poverty is a major impediment to children’s educational progress.

Pennsylvania can make different policy choices related to public education. The end of this report outlines ways that the state could increase revenues for schools and get back on track to funding levels adequate to deliver educational quality in poor as well as wealthy districts. This is the right – and far-sighted – choice not only for the children and families in those districts but also for the long-run health of Pennsylvania’s economy.

Download the full April 2014 PBPC report, “A Strong State Commitment to Public Education, A Must Have for Pennsylvania’s Children,” by Sharon Ward here

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