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Education Law Center (ELC)
SUMMARY. This week state legislators will be asked to vote on a new budget for public education, covering the 2011-12 school year. Unless drastic changes are made, the budget is expected to scratch the wealthiest communities, cut those in the middle, and lacerate the poorest. Massive, costly bills are also being thrown into the mix at the last minute for tuition vouchers and charter school reforms, falsely claiming to help struggling students but really leaving out the neediest children.
Public schools are Pennsylvania's best investment. The state can keep its commitment to our children, or we can all pay the social and economic price in terms of more dropouts, unemployment, crime, health costs, and community decline. The proposed state budget cuts and expensive bills for vouchers and charter schools threaten to cause great harm to struggling students, schools, and communities and pass off the costs in the form of higher property taxes.
TIMELINE OF CUTS. The foundation of the education budget structure was first weakened last year. The General Assembly cut back state dollars for public schools in order to make room for federal stimulus dollars. The cutbacks were greatest per student for the school districts with the highest poverty. In addition, many smaller programs benefitting struggling students were cut or eliminated. Districts did not openly complain because the federal stimulus still gave them more money than the previous year, but it was only a one-year illusion.
Instead of shoring up the weakened foundation, Governor Corbett proposed a budget in March that made funding cuts up to ten times larger in high-poverty schools than in wealthier schools. Corbett's cuts totaled $1.1 billion, including the elimination of crucial programs for early childhood education, tutoring for struggling students, and more.
Even though the House of Representatives added back over $200 million in school funding in May, it gave away these dollars based on politics and not the real needs of students and schools. 150 school districts, including some of the poorest in the state, got none of the $100 million added for basic education. And once again the poorest districts received far less per student than wealthy districts of the funds put back for early childhood programs, primarily through the Accountability Block Grant Program.
Initially, the Senate said it would fix the inequities of the House budget, by adding sufficient funding to avoid the worst cuts for high-poverty schools. But now it appears that these promises will also be broken. The final details of the new budget agreement have been kept secret until the last minute. It appears that less than 1% of the education budget will be restored, and that the added funds will be given to both rich and poor schools.
IMPACT. The impact of these budget inequities is devastating for the neediest students and schools. Over 10 percent of all teachers are being laid off in poor schools, including teachers for children with disabilities. But some of the wealthiest districts are advertising to hire new staff. School libraries are being boarded up in some places, while new computers are being purchased in others.
Why are elected officials in the Capitol making plans that are so obviously unfair and short-sighted? There can be no doubt that such severe cuts in struggling schools will undermine the academic progress made in recent years and will make it almost impossible to continue this progress for the next few years. National organizations have recently recognized Pennsylvania as the leader in raising student achievement, especially for poor students. These improvements will not last given the budget, voucher, and charter school proposals, except in wealthy schools where the state is not imposing such severe cuts and upheaval.
In past years, communities could respond to slow-downs in state funding for education by partially filling the gap with local property taxes. For the last 30 years the state share of total education spending has fallen from 55% to 35%, and this explains why property taxes have increased to make up the difference. But local taxes are now so high in many poor communities that school districts losing state funding have no option except to cut programs and teachers.
In the long run, the state must decide whether it has a role in ensuring that the education of all children is supported by similar resource levels, regardless of where they live. This kind of fairness seems to be what our state constitution means when it promises a "thorough and efficient" education for all children.
In order to accomplish this worthy and constitutionally mandated goal, the state would need to stop using the political method of forming education budgets and policies. The bad decisions about public education by the Governor and the General Assembly have been made to fit an ideological agenda and support sound bites in press releases, not to meet the real needs of students. And the neediest children always lose when politics drives state policy for schools.
What are the alternatives? First, the state could distribute every penny of education funding using an objective, data-driven formula measuring the number of students and real costs of meeting their educational needs. This kind of formula was put into state law in 2008, but is being ignored. The result is disproportionate cuts for the poorest students and schools.
Second, politicians could wake up and realize that this is not the right time to add massive new state bureaucracies and expenditures for hundreds of new charter schools run out of the Capitol or costly tuition vouchers and tax credits for private and religious schools. The General Assembly is rushing to vote this week on bills that would create the "State Commission on Charter Schools" and the "Education Opportunity Board" to implement these vast new experiments and would spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, taking much of this money directly from the poorest schools that are already being hit hard by the budget cuts.
In contrast, state officials rarely talk about the $400 million in extra funding that they have built into the budget over the last 10 years for school districts where such increases were based on political payoffs and not on real needs – student enrollment in some of these districts has actually dropped by 25 percent.
These are the facts. Our elected officials are getting ready to ignore them, thus condemning struggling students, schools, and communities to a future that will have less potential, less opportunity, and greater impoverishment. Public schools and the children who graduate from them are the backbone of Pennsylvania's local towns and townships. Public schools are open to all children and the state must fulfill its obligation to meet their educational needs, not use them as pawns in political games.