Education Spending

Pennsylvania school districts spent $26.1 billion in 2013-14, an all-time high, according to the latest data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. This represents a $600 million increase from 2012-13.

Districts spent $15,019 per student in 2013-14, up from $14,621 in 2012-13. Total education spending steadily increased over the last five years, save for 2011-12 upon the expiration of temporary federal stimulus dollars.

<<Get the full Education Spending Trends Policy Memo>>




Making the Most of New Funding Formula

APRIL 27, 2016

A recent report from ABC 27 asks: “Will lawmakers stick with new education funding formula next year?” At issue is whether Pennsylvania’s student-based formula will be retained in future state budgets. The ABC story raises an important concern—but it slightly misses the mark.

Here’s the question we should be asking: Will lawmakers stick with the new formula and ensure the formula is applied to all funding above 2014-15 levels?

The 2015-16 budget includes $150 million in new Basic Education spending. This funding will be dispersed to school districts based on a formula that accounts for enrollment—which is undeniably a positive step forward.  

But the formula only applies to 3 percent of Basic Education funding, the largest line item in the education budget. The other 97 percent is restricted by Pennsylvania’s “hold harmless” provision, which guarantees each district receive no fewer education dollars than it received the previous year—regardless of changes in enrollment

It is crucial that lawmakers do not apply hold harmless to the $150 million appropriated in 2015-16. Should the legislature increase Basic Education funding in 2016-17, the new formula should apply to all funding above 2014-15 levels, not merely the increase appropriated in 2016-17. 

Thanks to hold harmless, districts with declining enrollment received more than three times the state funding per student than growing districts since 1996. Until the student-based formula is applied to a larger portion of the Basic Education line item, hundreds of school districts will continue to be treated unfairly.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 08:18 AM | Comments

Budget Complete as Fiscal Code Becomes Law

APRIL 25, 2016

Late on Friday afternoon, Gov. Tom Wolf quietly announced the fiscal code will become law without his signature. This significant development closes the door on a tumultuous year of state budget politics—and represents an important victory for public and private school children.  

Just last month Wolf opted to veto the fiscal code, which included a fair funding formula for education spending, language authorizing businesses to receive tax credits for their donations to private school scholarship organizations, and state funding reimbursing school districts for construction and renovation costs.

Lawmakers responded to the governor's veto by passing a stripped-down version of the fiscal code—this time with strong bipartisan support and veto-proof majorities. Apparently Wolf saw the writing on the wall and decided to refrain from yet another veto.

Thanks to passage of the fiscal code, education spending above 2014-15 levels will be distributed through a rational formula that accounts for student enrollment. This formula includes recommendations presented by CF in testimony to the Basic Education Funding Commission.

Ideally, the formula would apply to the entire Basic Education line item—not only the new education spending—but the fiscal code remains a step in the right direction. Certainly, the formula is an improvement over Wolf’s preferred funding scheme which funneled millions to Philadelphia, Chester-Upland, and Wilkinsburg at the expense of 423 other districts.

Further, the finalized fiscal code allows businesses that made donations to the state’s popular scholarship tax credit programs to utilize their tax credits in either 2015 or 2016. Recall that last year the Wolf administration put a freeze on the scholarship programs—claiming student hostages and causing confusion for participating businesses. The technical amendment in the code will reduce administrative headaches for businesses and allow more students to receive scholarships.  

A no-tax increase state budget, combined with a fiscal code that protects students, is a crucial victory for families and businesses in the commonwealth.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 11:49 AM | Comments

Wolf's Cockamamie Concoction

APRIL 6, 2016

Matt Brouillette pointed out in his latest commentary that Gov. Wolf  is taking a "lone-wolf" approach to governing. The latest example is his unilateral action to distribute school funding according to his own whims.

As James Paul noted, Wolf created his own scheme for doling out school funds, ignoring the bipartisan basic education funding commission's recommendations from December.

To stop Wolf from acting alone, the legislature included language in its latest budget that prohibits the distribution of new funds until a new funding formula is adopted.

That budget—which Gov. Wolf let become law without his signature—says the increase in funding “may not be expended until enabling legislation to distribute funding for payment of basic education funding for the 2015-2016 fiscal year is enacted.”

Wolf is completely ignoring the law, and the legislature, to do his own thing.

Sen. Jake Corman put it best, in talking to Capitolwire (paywall):

"The General Appropriations bill was very clear that he could not drive out the new money without a formula, and he vetoed that formula," Corman said. "For him to come up with some cockamamie concoction that the money he blue-lined in December was the old money and he kept the new money - that doesn't stand on the face of it."

Wolf's “cockamamie concoction” rewards just a handful of school districts. Four districts—Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chester-Upland, and Wilkinsburg—get 50 percent of the new funding. 

A whopping 428 school districts—or 85 percent of all school districts—get less funding under Wolf’s concoction than under the bipartisan funding formula. 

This formula looks at students to offer a "weighted student funding" model, rather than letting politics and past enrollment dictate current funding decisions. 

For the full impact of Wolf's education funding concoction, check out our sortable, searchable database comparing school districts' funding increases under Wolf's plan and under the bipartisan funding formula. 

posted by NATHAN BENEFIELD | 04:34 PM | Comments

The Final Piece of Budget Business in Limbo

MARCH 24, 2016

After nine months of gridlock, Gov. Tom Wolf finally surrendered his 2015 quest for higher taxes on families and small businesses. On Monday morning, Pennsylvania will enjoy a completed state budget. Finally.

But the governor isn't putting down his veto pen.

Lost in yesterday’s headlines was Wolf's promise to veto the fiscal code, HB 1327, which provides instructions for spending state funds. In January, CF identified dozens of earmarks tucked away in the fiscal code, but the legislation was, on balance, a winner for jobs and students alike.

Lawmakers used the fiscal code to implement a fair education funding formula, protect private school scholarships, and authorize reimbursement for school construction costs. The fiscal code also pushed back against President Obama's energy tax on coal and expansive regulations on natural gas.

Chris Comisac at Capitolwire (paywall) explains Wolf's opposition:

The Fiscal Code bill also contained a new funding formula that would have been used to drive out the $150 million in added basic education funding and a $2.5 billion school construction borrowing plan. That borrowing plan would have delivered construction reimbursements, through the state’s PlanCon program, to school districts throughout the state that have been on a waiting list to receive that money.

Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said the PlanCon borrowing also prompted Wolf’s veto, with Sheridan describing the plan being “prohibitively costly to issue due to inflated debt costs resulting from the lack of any concrete steps in the current budget to address the structural deficit.”

Sheridan’s response is strange, considering Wolf agreed to PlanCon borrowing as part of last year’s budget framework. In November, the administration was on-board with the school construction plan—and now, in March, they argue it will be “prohibitively costly.”

Setting aside the administration’s shoddy logic, districts awaiting PlanCon dollars will be on hold until a fiscal code is approved—yet another instance of Wolf refusing to release education funding.

In addition to construction costs, Wolf’s impending veto has implications for how much state funding each school district will receive. Kevin McCorry of NewsWorks has the details:

Because the fiscal code acts as a roadmap for how education money is divided, Republicans say that if Wolf follows through on that veto, he will effectively keep new spending in limbo.

"You can't spend that $150 million without a fiscal code," said Jenn Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Republicans.

The Wolf administration disputes that, saying that it will unilaterally distribute funding "in the most appropriate manner possible."

Wolf certainly has experience unilaterally doling out education dollars—this is exactly what he did in January when he approved a partial-year state budget. At the time, Wolf thumbed his nose at a fair funding formula, instead funneling money disproportionately to school districts in Philadelphia, Chester-Upland, and Wilkinsburg.

This is precisely why a fiscal code is crucial—it restrains the governor from political gamesmanship and ensures fairness for all students in the commonwealth.

 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 02:59 PM | Comments

Wolf’s "Plague" on Public Education

MARCH 11, 2016

Schools across Pennsylvania are feeling the squeeze from Gov. Tom Wolf’s $3 billion education funding cut. In Red Lion, Carbondale, Plum, and Erie—to name just a few—districts are struggling to remain open.

The governor claims he’s fighting to restore funding lawmakers “cut” and blames the legislature for supposedly underfunding education.

But last week, the administration’s education secretary, Pedro Rivera, dropped two bombshells that undercut the governor’s rhetoric.

First, Rivera confirmed Pennsylvania’s public schools are among the highest funded in the nation:

Second, Rivera conceded that the legislature has never voted to cut education spending:

Why, then, does Gov. Wolf continue withholding funds from cash-strapped schools? Wolf’s Budget Secretary Randy Albright admitted the real reason on Thursday. PennLive reports:

Wolf's $6.9 billion in December line-item vetoes—including more than $3 billion earmarked for schools—to close a budget hole estimated at $500 million to $600 million was ultimately about leverage.

Actually, we already knew that.

But rarely is it stated as openly or directly as this:

The vetoes were "to make the clear statement that it (the overall amount of funding earmarked for state aid to public schools in the GOP-crafted budget) is not enough," Albright said under questioning about the governor's strategy.

Apparently, funding Secretary Rivera says is among the highest in the nation is “not enough” for the governor. So, Wolf's strategy is to punish schools.

Not surprisingly, this approach has become increasingly unpopular.

From a recent editorial in The Intelligencer, emphasis added:

Locally, some districts — among them Central Bucks and Hatboro-Horsham — have so far been able to weather the storm. But Mark Miller, president-elect of the PSBA, says it’s only a matter of time before the stalemate in Harrisburg consumes every district. “No school district is immune,” Miller said. “This is a plague that the governor has released on public education, and it’s not necessary. We’re all going to catch the disease."

These are harsh words from an organization typically friendly to Wolf’s high-tax agenda. But Miller is right—Pennsylvania’s funding crisis is not an accident. It is an intentional element of the governor’s political strategy.

Each passing day without $3 billion in education funding is another day public schools are manipulated as leverage for higher taxes. Fortunately, Rep. James Santora introduced legislation (HB 1821) to appropriate the funding that Wolf has blocked. It is time to release those funds and cure the schools from Wolf’s plague on public education.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 04:40 PM | Comments

No, We're Not Underfunding Public Schools

FEBRUARY 29, 2016

My latest op-ed at PennLive debunks several school funding myths that continue to haunt Pennsylvania:

While local school revenue is notably high (6th in the nation), state revenue per student also exceeds the national average—ranking 24th-highest in the country, according to NCES.

Why, then, does Gov. Wolf repeatedly claim Pennsylvania ranks 45th in state support of public schools? This rhetorical sleight-of-hand refers to education spending in percentages, not dollars.

Would you rather have 50 percent of a dime or 36 percent of a dollar? Right now, state taxpayers provide the latter, paying more than a third of a total figure that significantly exceeds the national average.

I also address the funding gap between high- and low-income districts in the commonwealth:

You've probably heard about Pennsylvania's largest-in-the-nation funding gap between wealthy and poor districts. Isn't that reason enough to boost funding? While the discrepancies in district spending are higher in Pennsylvania than in other states, there is more to the story.

The NCES recently organized each state's school districts into four quartiles of family income. In each quartile—even among high-poverty districts—Pennsylvania exceeds the national average in spending per student. The discrepancy arises only because some affluent Pennsylvania districts raise enormous levels of local taxes to fund their schools.

Read the whole piece here. Relatedly, Gov. Wolf continues to hold schools hostage for the sake of his political agenda. His administration recently sent a memo to districts with instructions for shutting down:

A how-to manual on closing a school district for lack of funds is not provided in Pennsylvania's Public School Code but the state Department of Education did its best to compile one in response to districts' inquiries.

The department this week shared a memo with districts that outlines 11 actions that school boards would have to consider before taking the drastic step of shuttering their schools until funding becomes available.

Of course, nowhere in Wolf’s memo does he explain the only reason so many districts lack funds is because he vetoed more than $3 billion in state support of public schools. The governor could release those dollars in a matter of days, if he so desired, but he would rather spread the pain than solve the problem.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 01:37 PM | Comments

A Tale of Two School Districts

FEBRUARY 19, 2016

North Allegheny School District and Pittsburgh School District are barely a dozen miles apart, but their budgeting approaches for the next fiscal year are worlds apart.  

Thanks to rising pension costs and health care benefits, as well as a delayed-state budget, North Allegheny faces a projected shortfall in 2016-17. Instead of quickly resorting to tax increases, however, acting Superintendent Robert Scherrer led an effort to identify cost savings. From TribLIVE:

The superintendent noted that nearly $1.4 million in savings could be realized through payroll and staffing adjustments, which include $640,000 from anticipated retirements that were not reflected in the preliminary budget presented last month.

An additional $534,000 would be removed from the budget for severance pay to more accurately reflect the amount needed for the 2016-17 school year, he said.

Another $140,000 in savings could come through attrition by leaving vacant the equivalent of one full-time teaching position.

Further, the district is looking into “cash back” credit cards, buying fuel in bulk, reducing transportation staff through attrition, and renegotiating its photocopying contract, among other measures to save money.

North Allegheny is clearly making the most of every education dollar—and serving as responsible stewards of taxpayer funds.

On the other hand, this eye-opening report on the Pittsburgh School District explains how the school board was primed for a tax increase vote before a state audit revealed $125 million laying around:

If an audit hadn't been released when it was, there could have been a tax hike, [Auditor General] DePasquale said.

"We announce the audit that they have the largest surplus in the state. A board member comes up to me and says 'We have a tax increase vote tonight, but we didn't know we had this surplus,'" DePasquale said. "So we saved that district a tax hike."

As to how a school district can lose track of that much money, DePasquale says it comes down many times to poor book keeping.

"So for example Pittsburgh didn't know it had this $125 million. Us coming out with the audit that day prevented a tax increase," DePasquale said.

While it’s true that school districts face challenges from mandated increases in retirement and health costs, there are ways for districts to save money, streamline processes, and maintain services. In the case of Pittsburgh, better bookkeeping was the only thing standing between taxpayers and a higher bill. 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 09:43 AM | Comments

Wolf Tops $1 Billion in New Education Spending

FEBRUARY 12, 2016

As expected, a cornerstone of Gov. Wolf’s budget proposal is a massive increase in state support of public schools. The administration seeks a $1.1 billion increase over the record-high funding levels passed at the end of 2015.

Wolf also demands supplemental spending in the 2015-16 fiscal year based on a “framework budget agreement” from last November. Seemingly everyone except the governor’s office knows the framework agreement has collapsed, yet Wolf is still baking these increases into his 2016-17 proposals.

The chart below demonstrates Wolf’s continued efforts to spend more money than Pennsylvania taxpayers can afford. When the governor finally signed the majority of HB 1460 at the end of December, the General Assembly agreed to significant increases in Basic Education, Special Education, and Pre-K programs. Still, Wolf clings to the more expensive framework budget—insisting that these supplemental appropriations be signed into law.

 

2014-15

HB 1460

(2015-16)

Framework

(2015-16)

2016-17

Basic Education

5,730,069

5,880,069

6,106,969

6,306,969

Special Education

1,046,815

1,076,815

1,096,815

1,146,815

Pre-K

136,462

166,462

196,462

256,462

Pensions

1,157,853

1,725,000

1,725,000

2,064,000

Total (thousands)

8,071,199

8,848,346

9,125,246

9,774,246

 

(Note: Basic Education includes the Ready to Learn Block Grant, and Pre-K includes the Head Start Supplemental Assistance and Pre-K Counts line items).

Contrary to the rhetoric from the administration, Pennsylvania schools are not underfunded. The commonwealth ranks 10th in the nation in public school revenue, with per-pupil spending exceeding the national average by $3,400.

 

 

posted by JAMES PAUL | 03:40 PM | Comments

Groundhog Day: Wolf Demands Millions More for Education

FEBRUARY 3, 2016

When Punxsutawney Phil casts a shadow, Pennsylvanians expect a long winter. When Gov. Wolf issues a press release, Pennsylvanians expect a massive tax hike.

How fitting that Wolf chose Groundhog Day to demand another $577 million in basic education funding—$377 million for the rest of FY 2015-16 and an addition $200 million in the next fiscal year. The governor’s demands are rooted in the “framework budget” from last November, which was rumored to include $350 million in new basic education funding.

Unfortunately for Wolf, the framework budget has been dead for months [paywall]:

“I believe they may be the only party that does not believe the framework is dead,” said Senate GOP spokeswoman Jenn Kocher of the Wolf administration. “I'm sorry but it died the day that pensions did.”

The administration provided no explanation for why the $350 million figure increased to $377 million. Perhaps this was intended to offset the $50 million in borrowing costs incurred by school districts as a direct result of Wolf’s budget vetoes. Nonetheless, the administration seeks to distribute the 2015-16 funding through a hyper-political “formula” that ignores the recommendation of the state’s Basic Education Funding Commission.

Wolf continues to demand more spending while placing little value on smarter spending, which is exactly what the Funding Commission was created to ensure. The governor is not demonstrating a willingness to compromise, either: his education spending requests are not much different than his original proposal last March.

Rather than a $377 million windfall, what schools really need is the $3.1 billion that Wolf vetoed in December.

Of course, Pennsylvania revenue per-student already exceeds the national average by $3,400. Even when looking solely at state funding, Pennsylvania schools are better-funded than average.

posted by JAMES PAUL | 11:31 AM | Comments

Wolf's $3 Billion Education Cut

JANUARY 18, 2016

Upon finally approving the majority of a state budget, Gov. Tom Wolf admonished the General Assembly for "cutting $95 million from public schools." Yet it is the governor himself who is responsible for vetoing $3.1 billion worth of education funding

In a recent op-ed, my colleague Nate Benefield explains Wolf's misleading budget math:

Wolf is propagating the bold-faced lie that the budget cuts education by $95 million.

In truth, the budget increases public school funding by $400 million. The only education line item reduced is school construction reimbursement. This is not being cut, however. Instead, it’s being funded with state bonds, and school districts will actually get more in construction reimbursements.

In spite of persistent hand wringing about education cuts—much of it blatantly false—Gov. Wolf is now the only person standing between local districts and more funding. 

This cynical negotiation ploy—intended to force House and Senate leaders to return to the bargaining table—shows Wolf's primary motivation is higher taxes, not higher education spending. By only releasing six months worth of school funding, the administration refuses to fully free the state's budget hostages.

The chart below illustrates Wolf's education cut and how much money he withheld from local districts. (All figures from the Department of Education.)

posted by JAMES PAUL | 04:59 PM | Comments

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