Sunday, September 7, 2014

Back to School Lament

 The haves vs the have nots of education spending, April 14, 2014 AxisPhilly,
Philadelphia schools open tomorrow, two weeks after most area schools, with another round of cuts and an uneasy dependence on a still-unapproved increase in the Philadelphia cigarette tax.

According to a group called Fund Philly Schools, cuts in 2011 and 2012 took 86 percent of non-teaching assistant positions, 101 school nurses, half of the counselors. The system was left with 42 certified librarians for 249 schools.

Last year’s round of cuts went deeper, removing all 127 assistant principals, 676 teachers, the remaining 283 counselors, 1,202 aides, 307 secretaries, for a grand total of 4000 layoffs in less than three years, along with reductions in teacher training, supplies, student transportation vouchers, after school programs.

Some of those let go – one of every four - have since been rehired, after Superintendent Hite insisted schools would be unsafe with such inadequate staffing.

But it’s hard to picture how education happens in an environment where teachers’ jobs are so at risk, where classes are so under-resourced, where supports suburban students take for granted are no longer available.

I spent much of last week with a friend who grew up in a poor neighborhood of Philadelphia, attending a school where the classes were so large, and transience so constant, that many teachers never knew her name, a school where she never felt safe. Last year her two young children attended an elementary school with 31 children in each class, a school with no nurse, no library, no playground, no after school programs, no aides to give special attention to students falling behind.

I’m writing a series of posts about issues of importance in the upcoming state and local elections, and for me, education funding will be a high priority.

Pennsylvania is one of just three states in which school funding is still closely tied to local taxes, yielding one of the most inequitable models in the country.

A campaign ad for Governor Corbett featuring his wife Sue claims that Pennsylvania is “one of the top states in the country in what we spend per pupil on education.”

Factcheck responded in a feature article appropriately named “Playing Politics With Education”:   
It’s true that Pennsylvania’s per-pupil spending of $13,340 in 2012 — the latest data available from the U.S. Census — ranks 13th highest in the country. That’s well above the national average of $10,608 per pupil (though less than neighboring states such as New York, $19,552; New Jersey, $17,266; Delaware, $13,865; and Maryland, $13,609). But that’s largely due to the generosity of local taxpayers, not the state. . .
 As a percentage of elementary/secondary public school funding, Pennsylvania’s state contribution — 36.1 percent — is well below the national average of 45.5 percent, and ranks 45th.
This is not a new problem. School funding inequity was studied, and corrections put in place, in the not-too-distant past. According to advocacy group PA School Funding:  
In July 2006, the General Assembly called for an independent statewide Costing-Out Study to determine the resources needed to help all students achieve the state’s academic standards.  Act 114 of 2006 required the study to address two issues – adequacy and equity.  The study of adequacy was to determine what it costs for all of our students – no matter where they live – to attain state academic standards.  The study of equity was to address the growing gap between high- and low-spending districts and the implications for the quality of education received by students and for local taxpayers.  That study, completed in December 2007, concluded that Pennsylvania was under-funding K-12 education by more than $4 billion and that the system then in place relied too heavily on local property taxes.
 As a result of that study, the Pennsylvania General created a research-based funding formula, implemented in 2008-09 school year and used in the two following years, similar to funding formulas now in use around the country.
 The formula measured the number of students in each district, community poverty levels, and local tax effort, allocating relatively more funding to districts that are larger, are poorer, and have higher property taxes.
 The formula also recognized the additional costs associated with educating students in poverty and English language learners, distributing relatively more funding to districts with higher numbers of these students.
Unfortunately, that funding formula was abandoned in the first year of Governor Corbett’s tenure.

Since then, state investment in local education has been cut even further. In February 2013, The Education Law Center published  Funding, Formulas, and Fairness: What Pennsylvania Can Learn From Other States, documenting cuts in PA education spending, comparing Pennsylvania to every other state, and concluding:
Money does matter. Extensive research shows that investments in public education create huge long-term social and economic benefits. How these public education investments are made also matters. As citizens, we want our public dollars invested accurately, fairly, and transparently.

The question this report set out to answer was: How do states throughout the country invest this precious resource — public education dollars — accurately, fairly, and transparently?

Our research shows most states use data-driven, cost-based education funding formulas to meet these goals. Most of these formulas use accurate student data, account for differences among school  districts, direct funding to address those differences, and do so with a goal of ensuring all students have adequate funding to meet state standards.

The research also shows that Pennsylvania has become a national outlier by not taking that approach. The Commonwealth does not currently use an education funding formula, and its leaders cannot guarantee that state education dollars are being distributed accurately, fairly, or transparently (1)
Somehow, our schools, and the children they serve, have become pawns in a complicated, highly-
politicized, high stakes game of chess.  Rhetoric and accusations fly from every direction.

There are strong forces determined to shift investment from public schools to privatized education. While educational options can be healthy, the current rules allow charter schools to make unverified claims while performing below their public school counterparts, receive public money that becomes private profit, and choose only the students most easily and affordably educated (motivated children with informed and motivated parents) or that fit their preferred, homogenous demographic

There are also strong voices that hold teachers accountable for steep, and growing, pension liabilities. The Fordham Institute notes: "While pension underfunding is widespread, the situation in Pennsylvania is particularly dire" (1). Their anaylsis suggests that: 
Pennsylvania’s imminent crisis derives from the state’s complicated history in which it has failed to make actuarially-determined "annual required contributions". This history shows how defined-benefit plans and some loose rules for public accounting have left pensions susceptible to political shenanigans. In Pennsylvania, the bull market of the late 1990s was, perhaps ironically, a key enabler (4).
Philadelphia’s current woes are extreme, but in many ways shared by small towns and cities across the state. Teachers are blamed for decisions made by politicians, financial regulators, investment bankers. And students pay the price in an underfunded, adversarial system.

I’m thankful for the great education my children received, and impressed by the excellent school my grandchildren currently attend.

But I grieve - deeply - for children given less.

I want the same great education for my friends’ kids in Philly, for my friends’ kids in farm towns and aging coal towns across the state.

When zip code determines the quality of a child's education, our futures are all made poorer.

So this November, I'll be looking for politicians who don’t stoop to blaming teachers, who understand the importance of a strong public educational system, who have demonstrated a commitment to a fair, adequate, predictable funding formula.

And trying to find candidates who won’t further their careers at the expense of children, parents, and the teachers who serve them.
Two League of Women Voter tools can help voters find out more about local candidates. In many states, Vote 411, and in others, (including Pennsylvania and California) Smart Voter provide sample ballots by zip code, and links to candidates own websites. 

For education advocacy action ideas, check out Education Voters PA. 

This is the second in a series looking at specific issues of importance in state and local elections, as an extension of my 2012 series "What's Your Platform?"

Earlier posts:
What are Workers Worth, September 1, 2014  

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.