Cuts Have Consequences

This should come as no surprise. When you cut close to a billion dollars from public education, there are going to be consequences. Just so we’re all clear on exactly why we’re in this fight for our schools, let’s take a closer look at what has happened to them this year.

Last week the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA) released the findings from a survey of the state’s 500 school districts. [PASBO/PASA survey, 10-1-12] The results are not pretty. With a 53% response rate, the survey clearly shows that our schools are struggling to deal with massive budget cuts by increasing class size, cutting programs, and eliminating teaching staff. Here are the highlights:

  • 51% increased class size. This is on top of larger class sizes imposed by 70% of school districts in 2011-12.
  • 43% cut electives such as foreign languages, arts, music, physical education and even some courses in math, science, English and the social studies. Elective courses were already reduced in the prior school year by 44% of school districts in 2011-12.
  • 40% delayed textbook purchases. This is on top of the 41% who did so last year.
  • 32% reduced or eliminated tutoring or other programs for struggling students. 35% of districts statewide said they had already decreased tutoring/additional instruction time in 2011-12.
  • 21% eliminated summer school programs. (Summer school allows students to make up the necessary credits to allow them stay on grade level and to graduate on time.)
  • 4% reduced or eliminated early childhood education (pre-kindergarten). This is in addition to the 6% of school districts that reduced or eliminated pre-K in 2011- 12.
  • 2% reduced or eliminated full-day kindergarten. That’s on top of the 5% who cut full-day kindergarten in 2011-12.
  • 43% reduced or eliminated student field trips.
  • 30% cut extra-curricular activities, including establishing or increasing fees for participation in activities.
  • 20% delayed their planned building or school renovation projects.
  • 30% furloughed teachers and staff, with teachers making up almost half (47%) of the cuts.
  • If extrapolated to the state as a whole, respondents have eliminated or left vacant nearly 4,200 positions. PASBO-PASA had estimated in August 2011 that school districts eliminated or left vacant 14,590 positions in school year 2011-12: that’s 18,790 lost educator jobs in two years.

Jay Himes, who has been executive director of PASBO for 17 years, said “I can’t think of anything even close” to the education cuts we’ve seen these past two years. And Jim Buckheit, executive director of PASA, commented, “It’s important to note the cumulative impact of these reductions.” [Post-Gazette, 10-2-12]

Indeed. Just looking at those numbers above makes it hard to stomach the response from our very own state Education Department. Spokesman Tim Eller looked at the survey and had the nerve to claim that funding is not hurting schools, saying, “This is the typical rhetoric that these organizations have been spewing for more than a year and quite frankly, they continue to misinform the public.” [The Morning Call, 10-2-12] These organizations? Spewing? We’re talking about those crazy school business officials who probably get together at their meetings to discuss how to save money when ordering pencils. These are not extremists with a political agenda. The radicals in this story are those currently inhabiting the Governor’s mansion and the Education Department appointees who claim that sharing this survey data is somehow misinforming the public.

Even more outrageous, Spokesman Eller went on, “All fingers should point to the Obama administration and how its one-time stimulus program created the funding cliff that Gov. Corbett, as well as school districts across the state, faced during his first year in office.” [The Morning Call, 10-2-12] Here we go again. We’re back to this sorry strategy: blame it on the stimulus. Talk about spewing rhetoric in a deliberate attempt to misinform the public.

Governor Corbett and his Education Department appointees have been using the federal stimulus program as a convenient cover story for the past year as they have actually made deeper cuts to public education. They claim that the state is simply reverting to 2009 education funding levels. (See why this is actually “A Shameful Betrayal” of Pennsylvania’s commitment to equity through a bi-partisan plan that was years in the making and well underway before Gov. Corbett’s draconian cuts gutted the effort.) The fact is, this governor actually spent $372 million less last year on public preK-12 education than the state spent before it started using federal stimulus money. (See our full analysis in “The Numbers Game.”)

These radicals are slashing public funding for one of our most cherished public goods: our children’s future. Just look at the increased class sizes; the cuts to arts, languages, and even core subjects; the loss of tutoring; and the number of school districts that have resorted to eliminating early childhood education and Kindergarten. And you tell us schools are not hurting because of funding cuts? Look at that survey data again. These are the real consequences of unprecedented cuts to public education.

Poverty and Public Education

If we’re serious about public education, we need to get serious about poverty in this country. Too often those who wish to discuss the impact of poverty on children’s educational outcomes are accused of using it as an excuse for poor teaching. The new “reform” movement insists that the only thing poor kids need is a “great” teacher – increasingly defined by student test scores – and that any poor student performance must be the result of bad teachers.

Obviously, we should not tolerate incompetent teachers (though this is another reason good principals are so important, as it is their job to recognize sub-par teaching and offer the right kind of help – and to show truly bad teachers the door). And it goes without saying that all children have the potential to learn and do well in school. Naturally, we want all students to have a “great” teacher. However, we need a much better, and respectful, conversation about teacher evaluations that are based on far more than test scores alone. (Just think about the greatest teachers you ever had. Really. Imagine them for just a moment. You most certainly are not remembering the grades you got, but are thinking about teachers who inspired you, challenged you, nurtured your passions, and planted seeds that took years to mature.) High stakes testing has created a perverse system of teacher evaluation that often has little to do with recognizing great teaching.

The larger point is that good teaching matters an awful lot inside the school doors, but what happens to children outside them matters a whole lot more. The education historian Diane Ravitch points out, “Reformers like to say that poverty does not affect students’ academic performance, but that is their wish, not reality.” What’s more, she argues, “the corporate reform movement blames teachers for low test scores, ignoring the underlying social conditions that stack the deck against children who grow up in poverty. There is no question that schools in poor neighborhood must be improved, but school reform will not be enough to end unemployment and poverty.” [The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 256-57]

And the fact is that the poverty rate in the United States is projected to hit levels not seen since the 1960s – before many of today’s parents of school-aged children were even born. Census figures for 2011 will be released later this fall, but economists surveyed this summer broadly agreed that the poverty rate could climb as high as 15.7 percent. The Boston Globe explains, “even a 0.1 percentage point increase would put poverty at the highest level since 1965,” and that “[p]overty is spreading at record levels across many groups, from underemployed workers and suburban families to the poorest poor.” [Boston Globe, 7-23-12]

But the number that is our national disgrace – the number that ought to be on all of our lips, the cause for outrage, and at the top of our country’s priority list – is 26. That is the percentage of children aged birth to five living in poverty. [Tracking Poverty and Policy] That’s right, 26%. Over a quarter of American children start life struggling with the ill effects of poverty, including poor nutrition; inadequate pre-natal care; high exposure to health risks such as premature birth, lead poisoning, and asthma inducing smog; and the instability of frequent moves, substandard housing, and food insecurities, to name just a few.

A whopping 23.1% of U.S. children under the age of 18 live in poverty, putting us second in the world. Among developed nations, only Romania has a higher relative child poverty rate (with 25.5% of its children living in poverty). UNICEF reported this past spring that the U.S. ranks above Latvia, Bulgaria, Spain, Greece, and 29 other countries on this absolutely shameful scale. That ought to make us pay all the more attention to the study’s finding that government spending does lift children from poverty. [Huffington Post, 5-30-12]

We also know, as Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California points out, “Middle-class American students who attend well-funded schools rank at the top of the world on international tests.” He argues that, “The problem is poverty … Study after study shows that poverty has a devastating effect on school performance.” [Post-Gazette, 8-12-12] No surprise then that when the Keystone State Education Coalition analyzed Pennsylvania’s list of what it designated “failing schools” last year, it found the poverty rate at those schools was 80.8% (measured by the percentage of students receiving free or reduced price lunch) versus the statewide average of 39.1%. [KSEC, Feb-2011

It’s true that Pennsylvania’s children actually fare slightly better than the nation as a whole, with a statewide child poverty rate around 20 percent, putting us 14th out of the 50 states. But a report out this summer from the Annie E. Casey Foundation also found “nearly a third of children were in families in which no parent had full-time, year-round employment.” [KidsCount report, 7-25-12] Poverty is real, and it affects an astonishing number of Pennsylvania’s children starting in the years before they even reach school.

These numbers underscore just how stunningly short sighted it was when Governor Corbett attempted to slash $100million from early childhood education and Kindergarten earlier this year. If anything, we need to be investing more in pre-natal care and quality early childhood education programs. And we need more wrap-around services like before- and after-school care, tutoring programs, social workers and community healthcare. Those would be the kind of sound public policies based on proven strategies, backed up by real data, that we ought to expect from our legislators.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

It’s like an old spaghetti Western movie in Harrisburg these days. Lots of targets, lots of shooting, just not as many horses. So here’s the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in our state budget negotiations.

The Good.
Top Republicans met with Governor Corbett Tuesday evening in a closed door session and word is they talked about “restoring” the $100 million in block grants. [Post-Gazette, 6-6-12] That’s the money that most school districts use for Kindergarten programs and that the governor had proposed eliminating in his February budget. However, calling it a “restoration” of those funds is a bit unfair – it’s more like blocking Gov. Corbett’s proposed cuts – especially since districts are still reeling from the $1 billion he succeeded in slashing last year. But saving that $100 million from the chopping block would indeed be a good thing. A great thing!

The Bad.
However, the current proposal to rescue the $100 million did not ride in on a white horse. This one arrived in an amendment from Appropriations Chairman Bill Adolph, a Republican from Delaware County, and passed with a mostly party-line vote. [Post-Gazette, 6-6-12] The problem? The plan shifts money from basic education to cover the block grants. Representative Mike Gerber said it was “robbing Peter to pay Paul” and called it a “shell game,” urging his colleagues not to support the proposal. [Rep. Gerber House testimony, 6-5-12]

The Ugly.
And while our legislators ride around shooting at each other, the biggest bad guy of all just snuck into town. Funded by the ultra-conservative Koch brothers, the PAC FreedomWorks is launching an ad campaign designed to get a new voucher bill passed this month. [, news blog, 6-6-12] The radio spots actually take aim at Governor Corbett, accusing him of not moving swiftly enough to reintroduce his voucher legislation, which passed in the Senate but failed in the House late last year.

Residents in six key PA House districts will hear the ads that repeat the national conservative narrative of “failing public schools” from which families must be rescued by “school choice.” The spot claims that Gov. Corbett promised “to reform the failing education system in Pennsylvania,” and that, “Despite spending over $13,000 per student per year, Pennsylvania’s schools continue to fail.” The ad continues, “Children across the state remain trapped in failing schools,” and warns that this is a “growing problem” and that “time is running out.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 6-6-12]

This is truly an ugly attempt to portray all our schools as failures and our students as captive victims. (See “What I Told the White House.”) The reality is that most of our public schools are doing a good job educating students. Where there are problems, we should obviously fix them; but this gripping tale of supposed failure has captured the popular imagination contrary to the actual evidence. For example, Pennsylvania’s reading and math scores have both been going up and rank among the nation’s best (see comparative state school data on Save Pennsylvania’s Schools):

  • Our students rank 5th (out of 50 states) in fourth grade reading and 8th in eighth grade reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
  • Our students rank 4th in fourth grade math and 12th in eighth grade math on the NAEP.
  • Pennsylvania has among the best Advanced Placement (AP) scores in the nation, ranking 15th in the percentage of public high school students who score high enough on AP exams to qualify for college credit.
  • Pennsylvania is a national leader in “AP Honor Roll” school districts, with 28 districts receiving this distinguished designation.

Right now, this movie needs Clint Eastwood to shoot a few holes in the flawed logic of “public school failure,” touted by the deep pockets of conservative super-PACS. Meanwhile, our legislators have the chance to be real heroes: they can save public education without playing political shell games, and then ride off into the sunset while the credits roll.

It’s Not an Image Problem

We’re making him squirm. The Governor has been taking it on the chin this week from people in every corner of the state fed up with his devastation of public education. Yesterday he announced a major shakeup in his office with the departure of his chief of staff, William F. Ward. Apparently a small group of Republican heavyweights, known as the Governor’s “kitchen cabinet,” have become worried that Corbett has a “growing image problem.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 5-24-12]

Actually, what he has is an ideological problem. Governor Corbett stubbornly sticks to a “no new taxes” mantra, while slashing essential public services and refusing to consider alternative revenue sources – even those that would not require a dime in new taxes. Take for example, the $86 million in overpayments our school districts have been forced to make to cyber charter schools: those dollars alone would go a long way towards plugging the hole in the block grant program that Corbett wants to cut, which will eliminate full-day Kindergarten in many places. [“Trouble Seeing the Money”]

Corbett’s proposed budget is an ideological budget, aimed at privatizing many of our public goods – especially public education – under the guise of austerity. Pennsylvania isn’t buying it, leaving the governor’s top advisors worried that “the administration [has] not effectively sold Corbett’s agenda to the public, and that the governor [has] paid a price in popularity.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 5-25-12] No kidding.

The poor man can’t even get his story straight. Gov. Corbett repeatedly claims on the one hand that school districts must make severe cuts now that federal stimulus money is gone, even spending their emergency reserve accounts to pay for core educational programs. On the other hand, he loves to claim that he has increased state spending, by slyly referring to the Basic Education line item in the budget – which has gone up, while the overall budget has been drastically slashed. Pennsylvanians can see right through this doublespeak.

Perhaps the Governor’s kitchen cabinet ought to show him the new report out this week from the PA Association of School Administrators and the PA Association of School Business Officials. This study concluded, “School districts are being forced to cut deeper into instructional programs that will hurt student-learning opportunities and create fear that nearly half of districts surveyed will be in financial distress within three years if state and local funding does not improve.” [PASA/PASBO May 2012] The survey of Pennsylvania school districts found that:

  • 60% will increase class sizes again
  • 58% will face reduced instruction in art and music, reduced physical education classes, fewer elective course offerings and advanced placement course offerings
  • 49% are delaying textbook purchases
  • 46% are trimming or eliminating extra-curricular programs, including sports and field trips
  • 37% are cutting tutoring programs
  • 34% are eliminating summer school
  • 19% will eliminate full-day Kindergarten
  • 75% will furlough or not fill vacancies in their district; more than 50% have a wage freeze in place now (an increase from 16% last year)

I don’t need a kitchen cabinet to tell me that we have a real crisis in public education. And it’s not an image problem, it’s a funding problem.

Insane, Irrational, Irresponsible

The Governor has added another new talking point. Now he is suggesting that we should blame school districts for cutting programs because they aren’t tapping their supposedly vast reserve accounts to pay for them. Speaking during his regular appearance on a Philadelphia radio program, Gov. Corbett criticized school districts because they “are making a concerted effort not to go into those reserves.” [Delco Times, 5-16-12]

Actually, as Gov. Corbett well knows, over 70% of the state’s school districts are already spending down their reserves to balance their budgets this year. [Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, September 2011 study] Those reserve accounts are meant to be used for major planned construction projects or for emergencies such as a broken furnace. Not all districts have reserves, and those that do are certainly planning to use them for the massive spike in pension costs that are coming our way. (See why the state’s refusal to deal with the looming pension crisis is creating a recipe for disaster in “Pension History 101”.)

For example, last year when Pittsburgh Public Schools learned of the Governor’s nearly $1 BILLION in state cuts to education, it projected that it would deplete its reserves entirely by next year. The school board’s sound fiscal policy requires the district to maintain 5% of the current year’s budgeted operating expenses in reserve, but the district was already starting to run an operating deficit that would eat into those reserves. With the massive state cuts, Pittsburgh and other districts around the state were suddenly facing a dire situation: they would have to immediately cut programs, lay off teachers, and increase class sizes while continuing to eat into reserves and while knowing full well that the pension spike looms on the horizon. [Data from PPS presentation May 19, 2011.]

Yet here is the supposedly fiscally responsible governor telling school districts to essentially wipe out their savings accounts to pay for Kindergarten and other academic programs. As Jay Himes of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials points out, “To take the governor strictly on his own advice would be the same thing he criticized the school districts for doing with the federal stimulus funds. … This is one-time revenue. It shouldn’t be used haphazardly or without discipline.” [Delco Times, 5-16-12]

Since February, Gov. Corbett has been telling everyone who will listen that he has actually increased state spending on education (funny, then, that districts everywhere face huge budget gaps and are cutting programs). This past week he added a new talking point, telling us that we should blame school districts for cutting arts education because they are the ones making that choice. (For more on the etymology of this talking point, see yesterday’s piece, “The Governor’s Rash.”) And now Corbett tells us that if districts with reserve accounts cut those programs, “that’s their decision to do that, because they have the money in reserve, but the parents don’t know that.” [Delco Times, 5-16-12]

Wow. So now he not-so-subtly implies that school districts are trying to horde money and not tell parents about it? This is another tactic from the divide-and-conquer playbook and we will have none of it.

Right now school districts are making draconian cuts to essential but not legally required programs, like Kindergarten, because the state has left them with no alternative. Jim Buckheit of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, points to the abundance of research on the critical importance of early childhood education and says, “Most educators would rather get rid of high school before they got rid of kindergarten, but we’re mandated to have high school.”

While Corbett points his finger at local school board members, many of them are shaking their heads in disbelief at the empty bag the governor has left them holding. The Harrisburg school district announced yesterday that without state funding, they will eliminate Kindergarten, all athletics, and student transportation – and they will still have a $7-8 million budget gap next year. Harrisburg school board member Brendan Murray said, “This is absolutely insane, I never thought running for office we would have to say those [programs] are off the table.” [Penn Live, 5-16-12]

Insane is the right word for it. Irrational comes to mind. We can see through this new talking point, too, Governor Corbett. And it’s fiscally irresponsible.

The Devil’s in the Details

During Monday’s state-wide call-your-legislator event, many people reported having conversations with the Governor’s office in which various staff members argued that the proposed budget actually increases funding for public education. It is disappointing to see this tired old claim repeatedly pulled out and dusted off for use. But since the devil is always in the details, let’s be clear about exactly how this devil of a budget slashes another $100 MILLION (while carrying forward last year’s nearly $1 BILLION in cuts).

Here is the list of programs that would be eliminated or reduced under the proposed budget, along with those receiving level funding or slight increases (compiled by the Education Policy and Leadership Center). Governor Corbett has proposed collapsing four current budget line items into a new block grant (the basic education subsidy, pupil transportation, nonpublic and charter school public transportation, and school employees’ social security) suggesting this will provide “flexibility.” (See why school district’s say this is fiction.) While this new block grant increases the basic education funding line item slightly (3/10 of 1 percent over last year), it is almost entirely for state-mandated employee pension payments (which translate to actual cuts to student education). Overall, this budget slashes another $100 million, as you can see in the following, devilish details.

These programs would receive a 5 percent reduction, as indicated by the dollar value:

  • Pre-K Counts ($4.139 million cut)
  • Head Start Supplemental Assistance ($1.864 million cut)
  • Adult and Family Literacy ($614 thousand cut)
  • Education of Migrant Laborers’ Children ($45 thousand cut)
  • Services to Non-Public Schools ($4.319 million cut)
  • Textbooks, Materials and Equipment for Nonpublic Schools ($1.314 million cut)
  • Safe School Initiative ($106 thousand cut)

These programs would receive a 10 percent reduction, as indicated by the dollar value:

  • Teacher Professional Development ($718 thousand cut)
  • Community Education Councils ($120 thousand cut)

These programs would be level funded (meaning the same as last year). Total funding is listed for each item.

  • Special Education would be flat-funded for the 4th consecutive year ($1.026 billion)
  • PA Charter Schools for the Deaf and Blind ($39.401 million)
  • Approved Private Schools ($98.098 million)
  • Authority Rentals and Sinking Fund Requirements ($296.198 million)
  • Payments in Lieu of Taxes ($194 thousand)

These education items would be eliminated entirely. Last year’s funding level indicated for each item.

  • Mobile Science Education Program ($650 thousand)
  • School Nutrition Incentive Program ($3.327 million)
  • Job Training Programs ($4.8 million)
  • Accountability Block Grant, most districts use for Kindergarten ($100 million)

These line items received increases, as indicated by the dollar value:

  • Career and Technical Education was increased by 1.5 percent ($1.089 million)
  • PA Assessment was increased by 42.6 percent ($15.601 million)
  • Early Intervention received a 4.1 percent increase ($8.057 million)
  • School Food Services was increased by 2.4 percent ($734 thousand)
  • School Employees’ Retirement was increased by 52.6 percent ($315.880 million)
  • Tuition for Orphans and Children Placed in Private Homes was increased by 3.5 percent ($1.955 million)

This Budget Spells Disaster (but will our kids be able to spell it?)

Yesterday Governor Corbett released his proposed budget for 2012-2013, handing more devastating news to Pennsylvania’s schools. Once again, public education is taking an enormous hit it simply cannot afford: if approved, this budget would cut another $95 MILLION on top of the nearly $1 BILLION schools lost last year. And once again, the Governor is suggesting that schools will actually get a modest increase in basic education funding, when in fact, their overall budgets will be reduced.

The fact is, this proposed budget spells disaster for our schools. And with these cuts to education, soon our kids won’t be able to spell D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R.

Here are some details. The Governor has proposed eliminating the Accountability Block Grant, a $100 million program schools largely use to fund full-day Kindergarten and other student programs. Instead, as the Pennsylvania School Boards Association explains, “The governor has floated a new concept in his budget proposal called Student Achievement Education Block Grant, which combines the Basic Education Funding, Pupil Transportation, Nonpublic and Charter School Pupil Transportation, and School Employees’ Social Security funding line items. With this, the administration says, school boards will have flexibility on how their allocation is spent.”

Collapsing line items and calling it “flexibility” while actually slashing overall school budgets is yet another example of “Dishonesty Disguised as Generosity” (a slippery rhetorical device we explored in relationship to similar claims about this year’s budget.)

In reality, as the Pennsylvania School Funding Campaign makes clear, “this year’s budget continues to shift the school funding burden to school districts and local taxpayers.” In addition to the elimination of the Accountability Block Grant, “there are no increases for basic subsidy and special education in a year when school districts are facing substantial, mandated increases in local pension contributions. This will inevitably mean districts must either cut programs further or raise local taxes more.”

Arriving at the same conclusion, The Education Policy and Leadership Center explains that the new combined block grant “would provide an increase of only 3/10 of 1% over last year’s figure … This modest increase apparently covers only increased social security obligations, and provides no real increase for the basic subsidy to districts.” What’s more, most other line items in the proposed budget were either level funded or received a 5 to 10 percent reduction. These include Pre-K Counts, Head Start, Adult and Family Literacy, and Teacher Professional Development. The budget eliminates several programs completely, including the School Nutrition Incentive Program and Job Training Programs.

The proposed budget now moves into the negotiation phase as legislators hold hearings and debate the final budget, which will not be passed until June at the earliest. That means these next several months are crucial: we must make our voices heard in Harrisburg. Come to the Rally for Public Education on Saturday, 11AM-12PM in Schenley Plaza. And see the Take Action! page for more ways to reach out to your legislators. Together we can fight for our schools and our children’s futures.