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The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is in the grip of a major public education financial crisis. How did we get here? Well, Rome wasn’t burnt in a day. There are several stations on the way to schoolmageddon.
Start With Built-in Disparities
Everyone knows that Pennsylvania is home to urban behemoths Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, but we also have huge rural areas. Take Forest School District, a district that covers roughly 500 square miles, serves about 530 students, and a resident population of just under 5,000 (with a median income of $33K). Pennsylvania deals with all manner of poverty and population. Any solution our urban-heavy representatives come up with will be an ill fit for somewhere else in the state.
That much variation also means any funding system based on real estate taxes will have baked-in inequities. Pennsylvania also run has the fourth-highest senior citizen population in the country—people who frequently oppose having their fixed income eaten away by increased taxes on their homes.
Mess With the Money
Remember how the stimulus money wasn’t supposed to be used to finance existing expenses? Yeah, here in Pennsylvania we kind of ignored those instructions. Under Governor “Smilin’ Ed” Rendell (D), the state spent less on education but used the ARRA money to make it appear as if we were actually spending more. When the stimulus money went away, Rendell’s successor Republican Tom Corbett was in a hole.
Toss a Pension Crisis on the Fire
Pennsylvania’s pension mess is complicated and long-brewing. The crisis started in 2001 when the tragedy of 9/11 blew an investment hole in pension moneys. Rendell had planned on the hot investment market at the time to overcome lackluster performance on investments going back to 2008. But when the market suddenly plunged after the terrorist attack, the state’s response was to charge pension costs to a big balloon payment.
Mind you, teachers have been making their full pensions payments, on time, all along. But after 2001, school districts face truly mind-boggling pension payments that continue to get bigger and more bogglesome every year. Kevin McCorry has a more detailed explanation, but this chart gives you the general idea:
Governor Corbett (R) used the pension problem to cover the general underfunding of education. This chart shows how pension and stimulus money have been used to create the illusion that Pennsylvania education spending has been increasing when, in fact, it peaked back in 2008-2009.
Let Charters Drain the Public System
Charter operators have also worsened the state's education funding through their heavy and effective lobbying in the state capital.
Cyber-charters are particularly lucrative ways for private operators to drain the state's education funding, because payments are tied to the per-capita costs of the sending district and not the actual costs of cyber-educating them (earlier, districts were reimbursed a portion of the cyber-payment, but no longer).
In smaller districts, a loss of just sixty students to cyber schools can result in a loss of $750K in money with a reduction in district expenses of $0.
Pennsylvania’s level of school funding is 45 th in the nation. The state sends out 36% of the funding for local districts, as compared to a 45% average for other states.This means that local districts have to carry two-thirds of the funding, which means that local wealth makes all the difference.
In other words, if your local district doesn’t have the financial resources to pump up your schools, you are just out of luck. This is how Pennsylvania wins the distinction of having the biggest rich-poor school gap in the nation.
Tie District Hands
Governor Rendell attempted some tax relief. Gambling would funnel piles of money into real estate tax relief, and Act 1 would forbid school boards from raising local taxes further than an inflation-based index. This has had some novel side effects (not the least of which is that I handed in my budgets for 2016-2017 two weeks ago). But it means that local districts cannot just tax their way out of a money pit, even if they want to.
The gambling money provision, which would have required gambling levels in PA that would make Vegas blush, hasn’t helped anybody, either.
And the Results?
School districts across the state have responded to the financial crisis by closing schools and cutting staff. In one local district where pension costs and cyber costs drained over a million dollars a year from an $18 million budget, district administrators have had to close two elementary schools and cut dozens of positions in the past six years.
Depending on whose figures you use, Pennsylvania has been shedding roughly 4,000 education jobs per year for a number of years. Also, the state's college teacher education programs are under enrolled because everyone knows young teachers who can’t find work.
This big, ugly picture was why my dog could have won the 2014 governor’s election against Tom “First PA Single-Term Governor In Forever” Corbett.
What Could Make Things Worse?
Our legislature may make matter worse.
Pennsylvania has a long history of budget impasses (they even have a Wikipedia page). We are currently in our fifth budget fail in the last ten years. (Fun trivia: Pennsylvania has the second largest and most expensive legislature in the country.)
With no budget passed, schools are not receiving their state subsidies, which at this point amount to billions of dollars. School districts are being faced to dip into reserves, take out loans, and open lines of credit. Some districts’ teachers are dealing with the question of whether or not they want to work without pay, and other districts are looking at closing until the legislature gets its act together. In all cases, the choices represent extra expenses that cash-strapped districts will probably never recover.
To add insult to injury, many districts have stopped sending charter schools the money they don’t have, and Harrisburg has been paying the charters out of the gambling money meant for schools.
The budget battle shows no signs of resolving soon. Governor Tom Wolf (D) is a former business executive, and perhaps his style is not entirely collaborative. Our legislature is GOP-driven and used to calling the shots. It’s been a long time since public education had any friends in Harrisburg, and at the moment we are just collateral damage in a manhood-measuring contest. Superintendents and school advocates are calling more and more meetings, but at the moment it’s not clear where to apply pressure in the capital, except maybe everywhere.
Bottom line: things are going to get worse for Pennsylvania public schools before they get better.
Peter Greene is the Midwest Regional Progressive Education Fellow. Catch more of his writing at Curmudgucation.