What Pittsburghers are Really Saying about School Funding

Yesterday I shared with you what Pittsburghers are really saying about school closures. (If you haven’t already, please take a minute to check out this piece explaining why we must listen to the collective wisdom, knowledge, and experience of ordinary Pittsburghers.) Today we look at budget cuts in the context of the district’s looming $46 million budget gap. Once again, the community has a lot to say that we absolutely must listen to, if we’re going to get our priorities straight and make great public schools for all of our children.

For instance, did you know that this year Pittsburgh Public Schools will spend 9% less on classroom teachers than it did two years ago, while spending 9% more on school police? Of course school safety is important, but teachers are the people who work with our kids and help them learn. And PPS will spend more on school police than it will on counselors, social workers, school nurses, and librarians. [PPS 2013 Final Budget, p. 25] Is this what we want? The PPS administration should be having a deep conversation with the people of Pittsburgh about budget priorities.

In our community survey, we asked 920 people (mostly in person, with volunteers going door-to-door all over the city) about the effect of budget cuts on their public schools. Here’s what Pittsburghers are saying about school funding. [The following is excerpted from GPS Community Report, 10-13: Creating a District of Last Resort]

Budget Cuts

In recent years, PPS has made dramatic cuts to its staff, reducing the number of teachers by 17 percent, the number of librarians by 45 percent, the number of paraprofessionals and support staff by 35 percent, and the number of guidance counselors and psychological personnel by 20 percent.

StaffReductions

Just within the last year, students have felt the effects of significant staff reductions and cuts to programs such as art, music, library services and tutoring services. We asked our survey respondents about the effects of these recent changes, and their responses were striking. They present a clear picture of a district that is rapidly alienating far too many of its students, families and educators, and can ill-afford any additional budget cuts.

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The Misguided and Misleading Envisioning Process

Why would PPS make a series of education reforms that are overwhelmingly opposed by the community? One cause is the district’s budget challenges.

To be sure, Gov. Corbett’s decisions to drastically cut funding from PPS and other public school districts around the state have been devastating. Even worse, he did it while expanding funding for corporate tax breaks, allocating funds to build new prisons, and at- tempting to further privatize education in Pennsylvania by, for example, providing tax breaks benefitting private schools and attempting to implement school vouchers. [See “A Vampiric Budget”] Additionally, the state has eliminated reimbursements to districts for charter school tuition; school improvement grants; and state-funded science, tutoring and high school reform programs. [Keystone State Education Coalition, 5-13] The state has also refused to help districts deal with legally mandated increases to pension contributions. As a result, PPS has certainly taken a financial hit that must be addressed. However, the district is operating as if there is only one option for addressing their financial challenges—namely, by immediately implementing severe budget cuts—and that is disingenuous.

… In fact, when we asked survey respondents whether they would support a small local tax levy or savings from other units of government to avoid additional cuts to classroom education, they said by more than a 5-1 margin that they would support it (with 24 percent being undecided).

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Nevertheless, PPS is proposing additional radical budget cuts that will severely compromise the educational opportunities of our youth. Their solution is to “eat away” at the gap between PPS per-student funding and those of other districts. [Envisioning presentation, 5-13, pp. 18-19]

While most communities would be proud of having well-funded schools, PPS is using its relatively high per-pupil spending as a justification for the cuts. Yet given the extreme needs of our youth (including a greater proportion of students living in extreme poverty, special needs students, English language learners and homeless students), PPS should have higher per-student funding than most districts. Anything else would be profoundly inequitable. …

4 thoughts on “What Pittsburghers are Really Saying about School Funding

  1. Thank you for doing and sharing all this work. It is very informative and enlightening. I just finished reading the District of Last Resort report.

    Clearly how schools are funded is in need of reform. (I’ve also read the Education Law document about this.) In the mean time, I’m scratching my head about this per-pupil spending.

    I would like you to expand more on your view about the higher-than-average per-pupil spending PPS currently has. Can you break it down to where the money goes? Is there a way we could reallocate funds as well as fight for funding reform that can have enhanced and lasting positive impact?

    Thanks again for all your work.

    • The district tells us that it is spending more (relative to peer districts) in every spending category. There’s no easy, obvious one thing to chop. We definitely have a much higher debt load than others, because past boards apparently borrowed too much money. Dr. Lane told the Envisioning advisory group that the district now has its borrowing greatly reduced, down to about $15 million per year, and the debt has been re-structured, but that doesn’t entirely solve the problem. If someone has a spare $471 million sitting around, that would take care of a HUGE problem. The other axe hanging over our heads is the spiking pension payments that districts are required to make — this is a problem that the state must fix, yet keeps refusing to adequately address. For instance, the latest charter “reform” bill being considered in the Senate eliminates the charter school double dip on pensions (a good thing), by taking it out of the state’s side of the payments, rather than helping school districts (this actually will create a $65 million windfall for the legislature to spend as it pleases with no guarantee it will be on schools). There’s more to say on that, but the point is that these are complex issues and many of the solutions involve state policies.

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