The Numbers Game

Gov. Corbett and his allies are watching us. We’ve known that since February (see “We’re Getting Their Attention”) and it’s certainly a sign of just how effective our grassroots movement has become (see also “The Governor’s Rash”). But last week we had them running for their calculators.

On Wednesday we published our piece, “The Truth About the Numbers,” in which Paul Foster and Amanda Godley used state budget data to punch holes in the governor’s claim that he is simply “returning education spending to pre-stimulus levels.” The article had only been up for a couple of hours that morning when the Commonwealth Foundation, a very conservative Pennsylvania think-tank, responded with a new way to spin the governor’s education cuts: change which year counts as “pre-stimulus.” [Commonwealth Foundation blog, 5-30-12]

As you will recall, Foster and Godley crunched through state budget documents and found that Pennsylvania had actually allocated $372 million more to PK-12 education back in 2008-09 (before the federal stimulus money was used for education) than in Corbett’s 2011-12 budget. That means that Gov. Corbett was not merely taking the state budget back to pre-stimulus days – he was making even deeper cuts. That $372 million can pay for a lot of teachers, something we desperately need as teachers all over the state are being furloughed right now.

The Commonwealth Foundation criticized our choice of 2008-09 as the “pre-stimulus” year, arguing we should have looked at Pennsylvania’s budget the year before, in 2007-08. They claimed, “Big problem here—the 2008-09 spending numbers includedstimulus funds, $1.2 billion to be exact. And while most of the federal aid was earmarked for Medicaid spending, it freed up state dollars to be spent elsewhere (like education).”

Really? Gov. Corbett himself used 2008-09 as his “pre-stimulus” year: when he passed last year’s budget, he boasted, “The Basic Education Funding subsidy is reset to the 2008-09 level, the last year before federal stimulus funds were available.” [2011-12 Budget in Brief] Our faithful budget-sleuthing duo did some more number crunching and has this to report:

We actually don’t see a big problem in counting 2008-09 as a “pre-stimulus” year when it comes to education spending. In fact, we would argue that the Commonwealth Foundation is being speculative, at best, by making a connection between federal stimulus money earmarked for Medicaid and 2008-09 education funding. To understand this, it helps to see the budget-related events of 2008-09 in chronological order:

July 4, 2008:  PA legislators approve the 2008-09 state budget. In the budget is $9,651,344 state spending for PK-12 education.

December, 2008:  Gov. Rendell announces that the national recession has caused a budget shortfall and reduces the state budget for most departments, including education. State spending on education is reduced to $9,606,290.

February 19, 2009:  Congress passes the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (stimulus funding).

Spring 2009:  $1.2 billion is made available to PA for Medicaid spending.

June 30, 2009:  The PA 2008-09 budget year ends with $9,597,049 having been spent on PK-12 education.

This timeline suggests two “big problems” with the Commonwealth Foundation’s argument:

  1. There is NO evidence that in the four months between February 2009, when Pennsylvania became aware that it would be allocated stimulus funds for Medicaid spending, and June 30, 2009 (the end of the 2008-09 PA budget year) the Medicaid stimulus funds “freed up state dollars to be spent elsewhere (like education.)” Most of the 2008-09 budget for education would have already been allocated and spent by that time, and the 2008-09 mid-year education budget reductions remained, even after the state received the additional Medicaid funds.
  2. When we wrote that Gov. Rendell’s state spending on PK-12 education in 2008-09 was $9.597 billion we were reporting the “actual” money spent on education that year, even after the mid-year budget reductions. If we look at the state funding for PK-12 education originally approved by the legislature in July 2008 (before the economy tanked, the state reduced education spending, and the federal government allocated stimulus relief money for Medicaid spending), the 2008-09 state budget allocated $9,651,344. Using that figure, Gov. Corbett’s 2011-12 PK-12 education budget actually cuts $426.2 million from 2008-09 PK-12 education spending – a cut that is about $50 million more than the $372 million figure we reported earlier.

The Commonwealth Foundation’s blogger went on to argue, “The actual last pre-stimulus year was 2007-08, when the state spent $9.328 billion on PK-12 education. The 2011-12 budget represents a reduction from 2007-08, but only a 1.1 percent cut.” Only? Of course, the blogger didn’t want to share with readers what a 1.1% cut actually means in dollars: that translates to over $102 million in cuts, not accounting for inflation. How many furloughed teachers’ salaries does that equal?

And let’s not forget that the 2007-08 budget year that the Commonwealth Foundation would take us back to, returns Pennsylvania to the days of a deeply flawed system – a system our legislators examined with the 2006 Costing Out Study and determined to fix with a six-year plan (passed with Act 61 of 2008). To claim that the state is merely reverting to previous funding levels obscures the fact that our current budgets have re-installed historic inequities. We’ve called this “A Shameful Betrayal” of Pennsylvania’s own commitment to a rational and fair education budget.

Naturally, Gov. Corbett’s supporters would look to a year that had lower state education funding for PK-12 education in order to make his cuts look less draconian. What next? Perhaps the governor and his colleagues will argue that we really should compare his education spending to 2006, 2005 or 1999 levels…quick, someone find a year that makes Gov. Corbett’s education funding look good.

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