PA Education: Misguided Funding Cuts or Misguided Funding Mechanisms?

Misguided Funding Cuts or Misguided Funding Mechanisms?

“The fact of the matter is that school districts across Pennsylvania are struggling as a result of misguided funding cuts that have starved our classrooms of resources and put our children at a disadvantage. “ (From Governor’s Wolf’s official website concerning the resignation of David Meckley.)

This has been Governor Wolf’s mantra since the campaign; those archaic cuts to education under the Corbett Administration. The problem with the claim is that it isn’t true. There were cutbacks in education spending by the state during the Rendell Administration as a result of President Obama’s Stimulus money but in each year Corbett actually increased education funding at the state level. In the first budget proposed by Corbett after he came to office in 2011. School districts received about $860 million less in funding (including federal stimulus grants) for the 2011-2012 school year than they did the year before.

But the previous two years of education funding were propped up by $1.3 billion — $654 million each year — from the federal stimulus. More than half of that federal money supplanted previous state funding (meaning the state contributed less those two years, but the school districts got more). In other words, state dollars were replaced by federal dollars — and then some — to get states through the recession.

Under Corbett, a larger share of state funding went toward school employee pensions than in years past, due to a large increase in the obligations to the retirement system (set by the state Legislature). So while more money was going toward education, less was making its way to the classrooms.

Pennsylvania school districts aren’t struggling because of a result of misguided funding cuts that have starved out classrooms of resources. Pennsylvania school districts are struggling because of Pension costs and other unfunded mandates like Healthcare costs that is starving our classrooms.

Pennsylvania ranks the 13th highest in the nation on per student spending, $13,340 in 2012 — the latest data available from the U.S. Census. That’s well above the national average of $10,608 per pupil .   Breaking that down to state vs local per student spending, that’s $5,813 in per-pupil dollars coming from the state in Pennsylvania and $8,967 coming from local sources, primarily the school property tax.   When you look at this nationwide, Pennsylvania ranks the 6th highest in the nation for education funding from local taxation through the property tax. (Source: Center for Opinion Research, Floyd Institute for Public Policy, Franklin & Marshall College. Franklin & Marshall College Poll. 14 May 2014.

A quick analysis of the latest per-pupil expenditures and PSSA scores by Pennsylvania school districts show almost zero correlation.  Even for someone who thinks there is little relationship between spending and achievement, this complete lack of correlation is surprising, as students from wealthy households perform better academically, and the perception is wealthy districts spend more per pupil.

A recent study from the Math and Science Partnership of Greater Philadelphia on Pennsylvania school performance (specifically the 11th grade PSSAs) across school districts reports similar results.  Namely, they find that demographic factors (residents with bachelor’s degrees, percentage of minority students, and percentage of low-income students) are correlated with academic performance.  However, instructional expenditures per-pupil was not significantly correlated with academic performance and total spending per-pupil was negatively related to academic performance.

On a national level, there is also very little relationship between spending and related inputs and results.  The American Legislative Exchange Council’s 2009 Report Card on American Education, comparing spending and performance across the 50 states, finds:

Surprisingly, the data show that academic achievement cannot be accounted for by any of the measures of public investment used in this study (pupil-teacher ratio, per pupil expenditures, teacher salaries, and funds received from the federal government), either singly or as a blend. This conclusion is borne out when variations in average SAT scores per state are tracked over the past two decades alongside changes in these measures of public investment. If anything, this statistical analysis demonstrates a positive, but weak, relationship between student success and percentage of federal funding, and pupil-teacher ratio – yet not in the manner one would anticipate.

From 1980-81 to 2007-08, Pennsylvania taxpayers increased spending on public schools by $20 billion, or 400%.  In per-pupil terms, after adjusting for inflation, Pennsylvania public school spending increased 125%, from $6,000 per pupil (in 2009 dollars) to almost $14,000. Yet performance has not doubled or even improved dramatically. SAT scores have remained stagnant over the past 30 years. (Source: Costing-Out the Price of Education by NATHAN BENEFIELD)

student scores2(Note on chart: This is an imported graphic and the word precent should be percent. I’m reproducing it as it originally appeared!)

The above chart demonstrates a stark contrast between statistics being released by the Pennsylvania Department of Education as contrasted to statistics from the National Center for Education. It also raises the question of why proficiency ratings drop from 4th to 8th grade in math for any given year. We do seem to be failing our students in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania but it isn’t for lack of money.

The pension debt problem is going to keep growing and that’s going to result in dramatic increases, especially in the school property tax.  This year the employer contribution to PSRS will go from 16% to 21.4%.  It is estimated that this will add an additional $250 million dollars to statewide education costs.  Even if we shift to a 401(k) system that won’t stop the pension problem for existing teachers. It will help but its a band-aid, not a real solution.

We have a first in-last out policy based on seniority, not merit.   The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics documents the loss of more than 23,000 education jobs in Pennsylvania through the end of 2012. (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages). According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, nearly 11,000 professional positions were lost in just three years (2010-2011 to 2013-2014) (PDE: 2010-2011 Professional Personnel Summary and 2013-2014 Professional Personnel Summary,  Even with the cuts to staff, the pension problem still grows. All future cuts in education employment, unless the first in-last out policy is changed, will result in the new hires under the 401(k) programs losing their jobs doing little to alleviate the existing pension problem.

It’s not just the Pension Tsunami.  The PASA-PASBO Report on School District Budgets was released this month (February) and includes some statistics that we should be aware of before we buy into this whole reduction scheme.  You can read the full report here (

Healthcare costs:  In the last five fiscal years, 93 percent of respondent districts have faced increased health care costs at least once. Looking specifically at increases from 2013-2014 to the current fiscal year, 81 percent of respondent districts reported higher costs, with a median increase of six percent.

Special Education Funding: Ninety-one percent of respondent districts reported increased special education costs at least once since 2010-2011. And while the state’s 2014-2015 education budget included an additional $20 million for special education (the first increase in special education funding from the state in six years), these resources were not enough to offset rising mandated costs at the district level. Seventy-eight percent of respondent districts reported increased special education expenditures in 2014-2015, with a median increase of seven percent over 2013-2014.

This report explains that since 2008-2009 the School Property Tax has increased  an statewide average of 16%. Ninety-one percent of respondent districts have raised taxes at least once over this span, and in every fiscal year, more than 60 percent of respondent districts raised property taxes. Notably, there has been a steady, three-year uptick in the frequency of tax increases since 2012-2013.

The summary of this report includes this alarming statement: A recent quantitative analysis presented at the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute of Politics and Temple University’s Center for Regional Politics showed that basic assumptions around revenues and expenditures would find 50 percent of Pennsylvania districts without the funds needed to meet mandatory costs by fiscal year 2017-2018.

Governor Wolf’s increase in education funding isn’t addressing the real problems. We consistently hear the mantra that “it’s all about the children” and it should be but the majority of education funding isn’t going into the classrooms: it goes to administrative costs, salaries, pensions and benefits. If increasing the administrative part of education as well as the salaries, benefits and pensions of teachers actually provided better education, wouldn’t the statistics bear that out. Then why don’t they?

School districts are being forced into more and more compliance to state and federal regulations. I don’t think that’s because that’s what they want to do. I really do think they are concerned with the quality of education the students are receiving. On one hand they struggle with compliance to the growing unfunded mandates and with the implementation of Common Core and the Federal Involvement, those issues just keep growing. On the other hand they have to deal with the demands of the powerful teacher’s unions. Nobody wants to see a strike. A teacher’s strike disrupts the classroom and places additional burdens on working parents.

Teacher’s should be compensated for educating our children. There are a lot of good teachers out there but, just as it is in any profession, there are bad teachers as well. This can be especially damaging at the elementary levels where an underperforming teacher will have an entire classroom for a large percentage of the day through that entire school year. A Student who is already struggling before they wind up in that teachers classroom can suddenly find themselves further behind and ill-prepared to move on to the next level. There has to be a better way and if its all about the children, they deserve that much.

Simply throwing money at the problem isn’t a solution. It never has been. All that ever creates is the need for more money. It also time to stop the partisan bickering and address the real problems when it comes to education. There needs to be more accountability to the parents and to the students when it comes to education. A lot is said about local control when it comes to education but when it really comes down to it, parents have less to say about their children’s education then ever before.

The shift to Common Core is creating classrooms without textbooks that further prevents parents from observing what their children really are learning.   The number of teachers opposing Common Core is growing and some of those really good teachers have given up and left the education profession feeling they are no longer actually teaching the children, just handing out packets and forms for the children to be filled out.

The real burden of all this education funding comes back on the taxpayers in the Commonwealth. The shift away from state funding to local funding through the property tax has created a legislative accountability loophole that allows for special interest please for education that costs more money but provides very little proven results.

The property tax has become the enabler. Without it Common Core, the Pension Tsunami, the Union Control over education and countless other problems wouldn’t exist. We know there is a problem with prevailing wage in inflating the cost of building projects but as long as the property tax exists, nothing has to be done about because the burden will always fall on the local school district to raise our taxes. Why would the state have to worry about increase administrative or curriculum costs if they aren’t the ones who have to increase out taxes to pay for them? Just throw it down to the local school district and blame them for the tax increases.

There are more than enough opponents to School Property Tax elimination that say that we have to fix the other problems first but the problem with that argument is that as long as the school property tax exists, they don’t have to fix the problem.

Eventually they’ll have to do something but by then it will be too late for all the people who have lost their homes or were forced into foreclosure or bankruptcy as a result of sky-rocketing property taxes. Where do you start: fix the funding formula; fix the pension; fix prevailing wage; fix paycheck protection; cap education spending; create more merit based teacher accountability; remove all exemptions under Act 1 and go to a full voter referendum on all increases in local education spending; abolish Common Core or whatever else you can think of?   As long as the property tax exists, the governor and the legislative bodies have no real need to fix those problems because they aren’t the one who have to raise our taxes to pay for them….under the current system, that’s the responsibility of the school district.   For many, that is what is really behind their opposition to school property tax elimination.

Others advocate for fixing this at the local level, as though that’s even possible. Even if it were, how do you fix this on 500 different fronts across the states. Electing financially responsible people to our school boards helps but it becomes an overwhelming task to maintain. Again, this assumes that all the spending problems are the fault of our school boards and that’s just not true.

It will take years to undo all those entanglements and for many families, those are years they don’t have. Those are families with children in their homes who face losing their home because they can no longer afford the local taxation but that’s okay because its all about the children. How hypocritical!   Equally hypocritical is the notion that its okay to evict a law-abiding senior from their home who has faithfully paid their taxes all their life and now can not enjoy their retirement and face losing a lifetime of investment in their home. It’s not just the investment, we are talking about people’s homes, a fundamental rights as surely as we have a right to life, liberty and an education.

The Governor started his education funding arguments on a false precept and he’s only expanding that that false precept by going down the reduction path while using the same rhetoric that Governor Rendell used to sell Pennsylvania on gambling to reduce property taxes.   Back then Governor Rendell said limited slots gaming approved last year would generate $1 billion for statewide property tax cuts.   Governor Rendell also advocated for expanding the sales tax to use the additional revenue to eliminate school property taxes. Rendell also advocated for an increase in the minimum wage.   More than a decade later and where is the reduction we were promised? School Property Taxes outpaced any relief we have seen from gambling revenue.

People who are growing desperate will hear the Governor’s proposal and may be tempted to fall for this illusion but just like Governor Rendell’s scheme, reduction doesn’t work because it doesn’t eliminate.   It’s not a more efficient or accountable system of taxation to completely replace the old one.   That always leaves us with more taxes, not relief.  This state NEEDS to eliminate to the property tax as a means of funding education through the school property tax and find a more equitable way to fund education.  They don’t have to look far because we’ve been trying to do for the last 3 years through HB/SB 76.

We do have an accountability to provide for the education of our children. The school property tax isn’t really a property tax, it’s just called a property tax. It’s an education funding tax. That accountability to fund education should be everyone’s responsibility. It shouldn’t be focused on one sector of society nor should it provide for exemptions of some at a greater expense to others. Education funding can never fairly be tied to property tax. It requires something different and that’s the beauty of HB/SB 76, the property Tax Independence Act. That’s why it will work.

Not only does HB/SB 76 provide the most fair source of education funding it caps education spending to the rate of inflation creating more accountability to how our money is spent while removing the legislative ability to pass down unfunded mandates forcing school districts to raise taxes so state legislators can claim they haven’t.

As a result, that accountability transfers into a requirement for the State Legislators to begin to fix the myriad of other problems associated with education funding because that responsibility is now squarely where it belongs, with the General Assembly, just like our Constitution says it should.

The Governor is on the right track but he isn’t finishing the race and that’s the problem. As a result the Commonwealth loses that race, or more importantly, it’s the tax payer’s loss. Get us all the way to the finish line. Eliminate the school property tax for the purposes of funding education and support HB/SB 76 in its entirety. Let’s make it happen now!




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