Hurting the Poor

I don’t know how Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, can keep a straight face when he talks to reporters. Again and again he declares that Governor Corbett “has increased state funding for public schools by $1.5 billion” over the past four years. [Post-Gazette, 8-28-14]

Anyone with half a brain or with a school age child can tell you that’s a load of hogwash. Sometimes having school age children makes us parents operate with only half a brain, but we can still tell you that Pennsylvania kids are sitting in larger classes, with fewer of their teachers, and missing critical books, supplies, academic courses, and programs.

Of course, what Mr. Eller means is that Gov. Corbett collapsed a bunch of line items into the Basic Education Funding portion of the budget, so that he could say that this single line item increased. Meanwhile, he decimated overall state funding for public schools. Gov. Corbett also likes to tout the additional dollars he put into pension payments (as required by state law) when he calculates that $1.5 billion figure, but will not account for the fact that he slashed charter school tuition reimbursements for districts, Accountability Block Grants, School Improvement Grants, or other programs such as the Education Assistance and High School Reform programs.

As the following graph clearly illustrates, even allowing for increased state contributions to pension payments, our schools are still not receiving the level of preK-12 funding that they were back in 2008-09! (In this chart the federal stimulus dollars are in yellow and pension dollars in light blue: check out the dark blue columns to see how our schools have been set back more than six years in budget cuts.)


But this is more than a rhetorical debate over which line items to count. Four years into this mess it is now clear that these historic budget cuts have hurt our poorest students the most. A new report out this week analyzes state funding per child and finds that budget cuts to the most impoverished school districts were more than three times as large on average as those made to the wealthiest districts. What’s more, using the state’s own data, the report demonstrates that class sizes increased more in high poverty districts and that reading and math scores declined the most for students living in poverty. [Budget cuts, student poverty, and test scores: Examining the evidence, PSEA August 2014] Look at the disparity in chart form:


[Source: PSEA, 8-25-14]

What does that look like here in Southwest Pennsylvania? Just look at the following table of the ten biggest losers in Allegheny County on a per-student basis. Pittsburgh tops the list of districts most harmed by budget cuts with an average per-child loss of $1,038, followed by a parade of high-poverty school districts. It’s worth noting the story of race here, too, as these districts have a large proportion of students of color. Compare these numbers to Fox Chapel, which has “only” lost $36 per student (no students should be losing money for their education), or Mt. Lebanon ($9), or my alma mater, Upper St. Clair, which has actually gained $4 on a per-student basis.



Perhaps Gov. Corbett should spend more time explaining why his policies are hurting poor kids than trying to convince us that he has increased spending on public education. We parents just aren’t that gullible.

Budget Talk

As we get closer to the end-of-June deadline, our legislators are finally talking about the state budget. Yesterday, the Republicans in the PA House proposed their own budget in response to Governor Corbett’s plan, announced in February. [See “Budget with a But”] Their version adds $10 million more for education, bringing the total increase to $100 million. [PA House GOP Proposed 2013-14 Budget] After two devastating years of cuts, any increase is good – but $100 million doesn’t get us close to the nearly $2 billion our kids have lost.

Perhaps most telling, the Republican plan counts on $85 million in “savings” from all the teachers who lost their jobs last year (since the state now won’t have to pay their portion of Social Security and pensions). However, rather than putting those “savings” fully back into education, the House GOP shifts $75 million over to other line items. Yet overall, this Republican budget spends $100 million less than even Gov. Corbett proposed, so there are plenty of cuts all around – including $32 million less for the Department of Public Welfare and a $3 million cut to child care services for the working poor. Meanwhile, the legislature would receive a $4 million increase for itself under this plan. [Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center analysis, 5-29-13]

The House GOP budget also fails to grapple with desperately needed pension reform. Gov. Corbett proposed some pension changes earlier this year, but this plan does not include any savings from those proposed changes. It also fails to take advantage of savings that Pennsylvania would see under the Affordable Care Act. By refusing to expand our Medicaid program using available federal aid, Gov. Corbett and the Republican-controlled legislature are refusing crucial funds that could free up other dollars to help school districts crippled by their own budget cuts. Is it any surprise that Corbett’s disapproval rating just ranked him as the 5th worst Governor in the nation? [FiveThirtyEight at the NYT, 5-28-13]

At least his crazy plan to tie school funding to liquor privatization seems to be off the table for now. [See “Kids or Booze”] And the PA Budget and Policy Center reports that, “some lawmakers—and even the Corbett administration—are considering a delay in the phaseout of the capital stock and franchise tax.” The state has been rolling back this corporate tax, which is scheduled to be completely eliminated by next year. But if lawmakers freeze the tax at 2012 levels, the state could raise around $390 million to offset additional budget cuts. [PBPC, 5-29-13] This one is a no brainer. Pennsylvania taxpayers simply can’t afford all these corporate giveaways, which have tripled in just the past ten years: the legislature is now handing out well over $3 BILLION of our dollars to their corporate friends every year. [PBPC, 3-12-13]

While putting some money back into the “basic education subsidy” (one line item in the state education budget out of many), the proposed House Republican budget also leaves out many things. Our friend Larry Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition reminds us that in fiscal year 2008-09, well before any federal stimulus money was applied to the state budget, “there were several line items in addition to the basic education subsidy that no longer exist or are significantly reduced.” [KSEC, 5-30-13] These include:

  • High School Reform, $10.7 million eliminated
  • Accountability Block Grant, $171.4 million reduction
  • Tutoring, $65.1 million eliminated
  • Dual Enrollment, $10.0 million eliminated
  • Science: It’s Elementary, $13.6 million eliminated
  • School Improvement Grants, $22.8 million eliminated
  • Charter School Reimbursement, $226.9 million eliminated

That’s a total of $520.5 million eliminated to these programs alone. [See data comparison from Philadelphia Senator Vincent Hughes]

While House Republicans released their budget yesterday, House Democrats held a public hearing on education over on the other side of the state. Parents were invited to speak, along with our colleagues at the PA Budget and Policy Center and the Education Law Center. But I was disappointed to see that the corporate-reform group, Students First, was also given time on the agenda.

That is the organization founded by former D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee, most well known for firing people live on film, mass closings of schools, and a high-stakes-testing cheating scandal that appears to have unfolded with her knowledge. Despite that scandal, and confirmed cheating by adults in 37 other states, Rhee and her Students First continue to promote high-stakes-testing as the solution to our education woes. [See “A Plague of Cheating”] Students First PA promotes a school letter grading system based on the results of those tests, along with parent trigger laws – also known as parent “tricker” laws, which trick parents into thinking they have control over their schools, when in reality they are handing control over to privately managed companies. [See “Won’t Be Silent”]

Fortunately, our friend Colleen Kennedy, a public education advocate in Upper Darby and founder of the grassroots group, Save Upper Darby Arts, was at the hearing and reports, “Overall it was a productive meeting, and I think that most of the legislators are not falling for the corporate Students First approach.” Let’s hope she is right.

Speaking of Upper Darby, another group of parents in that district (which is right outside of Philadelphia), created a helpful petition on special education funding aimed at our state legislature during this budget negotiation season. This is a particularly detailed petition laying out the problems with the current way the state funds special education, negatively impacting all of our schools. I encourage you to read it and sign.

It’s time to get our legislators talking about what our kids really need in the next state budget: adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for their public schools. Get to work and fix special ed funding. Fix the charter funding formula. Fix the state funding formula. Get serious about pension reform. Accept available federal dollars to provide expanded healthcare coverage in Pennsylvania and free up funding for our schools. And stop giving away billions of our taxpayer dollars to corporations. You’ve got four weeks until the state budget is due. Go.

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.

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.

The Truth About the Numbers

Oh those halcyon pre-stimulus days. Governor Corbett and his allies have a habit of making outrageous claims about our state budget, then repeating them over and over again hoping that people will believe them. Lately we’ve been hearing again that the governor is merely returning state education funding to its level before Pennsylvania accepted federal stimulus dollars. (This has been a common claim since January, see “A Shameful Betrayal.”)

Amanda Godley and Paul Foster have done some digging into this absurdity and conclude, “His claim is not supported by the facts.” Using official state documents, they double and triple-checked their numbers and found the following:

The short story

  • In 2008-09 (pre-stimulus), under Gov. Rendell, the state spent $9.597 billion on PK-12 education (“basic education”).
  • In 2011-12, under Gov. Corbett, the state spent $9.225 billion on PK-12 education (“basic education”).
  • So Corbett allocated $372 million LESS last year for PK-12 education than the state spent pre-stimulus in 2008-09.

Note that there is a line item within the category “PK-12 Education – Basic Education” that is called “basic education funding” and this is the line item that Corbett usually refers to when he claims that he has simply returned state education funding to pre-stimulus amounts. But there are many, many other line items in the section of the state budget entitled “PK-12 Education – Basic Education” (things like transportation, early intervention, special education, etc.) that Corbett has reduced or eliminated. So when he refers to his “basic education spending” in claims that he is not reducing state funding for PK-12 education, he is trying to trick the public into believing that he is referring to ALL state funding for PK- 12 education rather than just one line item. (See “Dishonesty Disguised as Generosity.”)

Just last week, Corbett’s spokesman, Kevin Harley, tried this trick, claiming that the governor has “added more” to Basic Education and that “Pennsylvania taxpayers now pay more toward Basic Education than at any time in the state’s history.” [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 5-23-12] But in a rare moment of full disclosure, even Corbett admitted the truth back in February, saying, “We reduced education funding if you look at it as a whole. … and if you listen to my words, I always talk about the basic education funding formula [also referred to as the basic education subsidy].” [Capitolwire, 2-9-2012 (subscription service); for reference, see PADems 2-10-12]

The Long Story
To figure out the 2008-09 actual spending on education, Amanda and Paul examined Gov. Rendell’s 2010-11 Executive Budget, which reports actual 2008-09 spending on education. On page 513-14 (labeled E14.15-16 at the bottom), you’ll find the PK-12 budget numbers. The leftmost column, “Actual,” is what was spent in 2008-09. The total is $9.597 billion.

To figure out the 2011-12 spending on education, they examined Gov. Corbett’s 2012-13 Executive Budget proposal, published in February. Pages 496-497 (labeled E15.12-13 at the bottom) report 2011-12 education spending under the middle column entitled “2011-12 available.” This budget does not follow the exact same format as the 2010-11 budget document, so these two sleuths double checked that they had accounted for the all programs (when programs were not cut). As we have reported here before, Gov. Corbett eliminated a number of line items and consolidated them under “Education Block Grant” to appear as if he has increased education funding, but this is just an attempt to hide decreases in funding.

Furthermore, if you compare the column entitled “2011-12 available” to the “2012-13 budget” (what Gov. Corbett is proposing for next year) you can see that the governor is proposing decreases in many categories for next year, too. The only category that is increased is employees’ pensions.

The Bottom Line
When Gov. Corbett insists that he is simply taking us back to the days before federal stimulus dollars, he is not being truthful. 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. It’s convenient to blame the loss of stimulus dollars for our current budget woes, but these numbers make it clear that Gov. Corbett is using that as a cover story. What he is really doing is slashing public funding for one of our most cherished public goods: our children’s future.

Should Schools Have Known the $$ was Temporary?

Governor Corbett and his allies have been making some pretty serious claims about the budget cuts to public education. Today we address another one.

Claim 2: “Schools should have known the federal stimulus funding was temporary.”  

For two years, Pennsylvania received federal stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, ARRA. The state used this money to plug an existing hole in the education budget: these were dollars that the state had customarily spent on education, but they were now coming from the federal government.

The federal government gave the ARRA money to states to prevent schools from having to cut programs such as full-day Kindergarten and tutoring, or resorting to massive layoffs of teachers, during the economic downturn. One way states were allowed to spend this money was through the use of a funding formula, and Pennsylvania had just launched a new one. Scheduled to be phased in over six years starting in 2008, the new formula aimed to correct historic inequities in state funding of schools – a laudable goal it had actually begun to achieve in its first couple of years.

“So the stimulus money was in effect replacing state money that the state had intended to provide,” explains Susan Gobreski, Executive Director of Education Voters PA, “but in this case, Uncle Sam was paying for it. So schools did indeed know the stimulus money would end, but they expected that the state would resume its role in supporting the improved, adopted formula.”

As the Pennsylvania School Funding Campaign noted, “When the General Assembly adopted the new school funding formula in 2008, it included a six-year plan to increase state funding $2.6 billion by 2013-14.” However, by last year there had “actually been a net decrease of $217 million … [and] state appropriations lag[ged] behind the six-year implementation schedule by $1.709 billion.” School districts across the state have been left holding the bag, with huge budget deficits they did not cause and few alternatives other than making draconian cuts to their schools and raising local property taxes.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association concluded in its analysis of the budget cuts, that “[t]his is a choice to balance the state’s budget on the backs of schoolchildren, school employees, and local property taxpayers. … [It] isn’t merely wrong, it is disastrous, and seriously undermines public education in Pennsylvania.”