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.
Governor Wolf claimed the 2015-16 budget could not be balanced without significant tax hikes. But there are two ways exist to close a budget deficit: raise revenue or cut spending. Lawmakers closed the projected budget deficit by spending less—$3.8 billion less.
Pennsylvania’s FY 2015-16 budget was finalized in late March when Gov. Tom Wolf allowed HB 1801, a supplemental funding bill, to become law. This legislation appropriated an additional $3.1 billion for K-12 education—on top of nearly $8 billion that was signed into law in December 2015.
After keeping Pennsylvania in budget gridlock for 267 days while holding out for record-high tax increases, Gov. Wolf announced today that he will allow a no-tax-hike budget to become law.
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“I want to put more education dollars in our classrooms, not our school buses,” said Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, while releasing an analysis of 19 school districts that exceeded their state busing allowance.
According to the report, 95% of overspending districts do not make use of competitive bidding. DePasquale says it’s time to make contract bidding for transportation services mandatory:
Some school districts simply don’t believe what the audits showed. In fact, six of the 19 districts indicate either in response to their audit or in their action, that would be Scranton, that they have no intention of seeking bids for transportation services. Even though the audits showed, and they agreed, that they were paying too much. . . they offer some type of justification as to why they don’t seek competitive bids. It will range from well there isn’t any competition out there, it’s not a requirement. And the list goes on and on and on. And I just view them as lame excuse, after lame excuse, after lame excuse.
DePasquale indicates school districts could save nearly $55 million without raising taxes or cutting programs. Making use of competitive bidding to save public funds should be standard operating procedure. This is a critical step school boards must take to ensure education dollars are spent in the classroom, where they belong.
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.
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.