PA funding for education: Up or down?

These 2 graphics from PA Budget and Policy Center are instructive.

The first illustrates why people can say both that the state has cut a billion dollars from education (compare the tops of the 2010-11 and 2011-12 bars) and that it has increased the budget for education (compare the tops of the last 2 bars to the first 2 bars on the left):

Education-Funding-2008- PA

The benchmark is over 9 billion in 2008-09. In 2009-10 and 2010-11, the total state contribution rose to almost 10 billion, but the yellow shading shows over a billion dollars from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 = ARRA, or Stimulus program. The states weren’t supposed to use Stimulus funds to replace regularly budgeted items, but in hard times, PA and some other states did.

After the Stimulus funds ended, PA was left contributing less to local public education in 2011-12. Under pressure of public opinion, rising local school taxes, inflation, continued draining of funds to charter schools, and other causes, state funding has been rising, though slowly.

The proposed 2014-15 budget seems to have more money than ever for education. But note how large the blue-gray section is at the top of the bar. That’s for pensions. For many years, the state did not contribute its expected share toward future retirees’ pensions (the teachers and other employees did). So now it’s catch-up time.

Thus, although total state education spending is higher already this year (2013-14) than in 2008-09, the amount the school districts received from the state for educating students (not including pension costs) is still significantly less than they received in 2009-10 or 2010-11.

Some confusion has also been caused by consolidation of budget lines. Traditionally, one looked at the “basic education funding” line. In recent years, that line was increased by moving some other lines into it, and various line items that previously went towards education (e.g. reimbursement of charter school costs to school districts) have been cut entirely. So it is no longer valid to look at “basic education funding” in isolation.

Furthermore, even in the proposed 2014-15 budget, the dark blue part of the bar is still slightly lower than in 2008-09. That means that state spending to educate students and meet school districts’ everyday expenses would be lower than 6 years earlier. So we can’t say education funding has increased or decreased. The way to express it is:

PA education funding will be higher in 2014-15 if we include pensions and if the budget holds up.

Unfortunately, the second “if” is a problem too. Here is another graphic from PA Budget and Policy Center:

APR14_revenuetracker

It shows that state revenues have taken a dive below their expected level. The PA General Assembly will be scrambling to figure out what to do with the shortfall for the rest of this year and what do do about an obviously over-optimistic budget for next year.

There will be proposals, obviously damaging, to cut back the investment in education. And there are proposals to tap the huge potential revenue source that is natural gas production, on which PA does not currently levy a designated extraction tax.

Anyone interested in the future of education needs to keep an eye on these issues.

If school districts in the state’s wealthiest county (that’s us, Chester County) are under pressure, think of the other end of the spectrum. As stated in “A Strong State Commitment to Public Education, A Must Have for Pennsylvania’s Children,” which is the executive summary of PBPC’s April 2014 report:

“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.”

Download the full report here.

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