The message—really an SOS—about public school funding came from rural Tioga County, but it’s one most Pennsylvanians have grown used to hearing.
“We are in a much, much more difficult situation than we were five or six years ago,” a teacher wrote to the Commonwealth Foundation. “We have had to cut staff, programs and even close schools in our district just to stay afloat. We have never been able to offer many extras in our curriculum due to the size of our school and minimal tax base, but now we are down to the bare essentials.”
It’s a story playing out for teachers, parents, and students across the state: slashed staff and scaled back arts and language programs. Why? The popular myth advanced by teachers unions is that Gov. Tom Corbett cut $1 billion from public education funding three years ago.
The truth is far less dramatic—and a lot more sobering.
At the governor’s recent state budget address, the spotlight again swung to education spending. The governor has proposed $10.1 billion for public schools, slightly higher than last year, which was then a record high. So what’s all the fuss about cuts?
School districts are indeed feeling real financial stress, but this stems from a lapse of temporary federal stimulus money—not from a governor’s stinginess.
Initially, the stimulus dollars that came to Pennsylvania went to other types of government spending, like welfare. But the influx in funds allowed then-Governor Ed Rendell to spend more on public education.
However, the stimulus was only a temporary boost. School districts, lawmakers, administrators—everyone in charge knew the money would disappear. But rather than planning for when funding would reset, many school districts added staff and programs they couldn’t sustain.
The victims are now the students and teachers who are wondering what hit them.
While many educators are reeling, it’s important to look at the real status of education funding in Pennsylvania. Adjusted for inflation, average funding per student—made up of local, state, and federal money—has been around $14,000 since 2008.
Of that money, 58 percent goes to instruction, while 12 percent goes to construction and debt, which is one of the fastest-growing spending categories. In fact, between 1995 and 2012, spending on instruction increased 81 percent, while spending on construction and debt ballooned a whopping 171 percent.
At the same time public school officials complained of dwindling resources, they amassed $3.5 billion in reserve funds across the state’s 500 school districts and charter schools—increasing $300 million in the last year alone.
In addition, the disconnect between public school enrollment and staffing has been worsening. Teachers and staff have certainly seen layoffs in the last three years. But since 2000, schools have added 17,000 staff while the number of students actually fell by 60,000.
In short, public school funding has been rising—but it hasn’t always been spent in ways that would best benefit our children. And budgets will be squeezed further by the school employee pension system crisis, which holds nearly $33 billion in debt.
To survive, we must spend more effectively. A good start is reforming the broken student funding formula for school districts, which holds funding steady regardless of enrollment changes. As a consequence, districts with growing student populations often receive too little funding.
Another solution is to allow school districts to pre-pay their future pension obligations using their reserve funds. School boards should also be permitted to opt out of prevailing wage mandates, which artificially inflate their construction costs. And schools must be able to keep their best teachers, regardless of age or experience—a commonsense practice currently prevented by state seniority law.
If we’re to help teachers in Tioga and across Pennsylvania, changing how we fund public schools—not just how much—will be critical. If not, teachers, students, and taxpayers will be paying far into the future.
Priya Abraham is a senior policy analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.