Corbett's bad math on school funding

The governor says money won't buy educational success. The numbers don't agree.

Posted: May 01, 2011

Melissa Dribben

is an Inquirer staff writer

'Education achievement or achievement of any kind," Ron Tomalis said, "cannot be measured in dollars and cents."

Tomalis, Pennsylvania's acting secretary of education, shared this revelation during testimony before the state House Appropriations Committee in March. He was defending Gov. Corbett's proposed $1 billion in education cuts.

You have to sympathize with a man who spends six hours trying to convince a skeptical crowd that thinning schoolchildren's gruel is a responsible step forward.

His boss' plan includes cutting $250 million in grants for such programs as full-day kindergarten, giving $37 million less to Head Start, taking 9 percent out of autism-intervention services, and making 52 percent cuts in aid to Pennsylvania State University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Temple University.

Poorer school districts would be hurt the most, Tomalis admitted, and larger classes might result. Nevertheless, he maintained that the Corbett administration was committed to the "core mission" of public education.

Core, as in the gnawed-down middle of the teacher's apple.

Tomalis' best line was the one about the disconnect between Benjamins and achievement. In what other realm of American experience does money not measure success? Business? Sports? Entertainment? Orthopedic surgery?

Yet in the convoluted world of educational policy, studies can prove just about anything. Researchers have identified school districts that spend lavishly on their students yet fail to educate them. Other schools, despite beggarly budgets, produce annual crops of well-prepared scholars.

Great anecdotal material for anyone who wants to make a case for scaling back and paring down. But as the basis for sound public policy, a little shaky.

Funny thing about people who say money's not so important. They tend to have plenty of it themselves. And they don't send their children to schools where the windows are broken, art and music classes have been canceled, and the textbooks date from 1945.

Corbett sent his children to Catholic schools. Give him credit for loyalty. His idea for an educational fix is to give poor families the option of taking even more money out of their cash-strapped neighborhood schools and diverting it to their schools "of choice." Since it's just enough to afford a religious education, don't expect a mass transfer of Strawberry Mansion kids to schools like Friends Select.

Affluent school districts can't guarantee that all their students will succeed, but their graduates are given considerably better odds.

The state's own figures - and these numbers do not include infrastructure and other non-pedagogical expenses - prove it.

In 2008-09, Lower Merion spent $15,484.33 per student on instruction. Between 93 percent and 95 percent of its high school graduates planned to go to a two- or four-year college.

In Jenkintown, where the district spent $14,473.49, 87 percent were college-bound.

Bensalem spent $11,638.65 and sent 79 percent. Ridley spent $8,884.80 and sent 74 percent.

And in Philadelphia? Where 33 percent of the children live in poverty? Only $6,345.26 per student and 49 percent planning on college.

There are exceptions, such as the excellent Masterman and Central High Schools and the Science Leadership Academy. But they receive some additional funding through grants and private contributions and have the privilege of selecting students who are already motivated and talented.

The budget cuts, as always, hurt those most in need and least able to push back:

Children who now won't benefit from early-enrichment programs. Middle schoolers who now won't have outlets for their rammy adolescent energy by playing the saxophone in the band. High school students who now won't learn a foreign language or get help editing essays in classrooms that now will be overcrowded.

In his inaugural address, Corbett, a former public-school civics teacher, said, "The best way to make us competitive is to make us competitive in education. Today, our students compete not only with those from the other 49 states, but with students from around the world." That's something everyone can agree with.

But his plan to help them by disinvesting in their future has made even his GOP allies balk.

Raising taxes is not an option. (That struggling districts will have to raise property taxes doesn't count.) There has been talk about restoring some educating funding. How? By taking even bigger chunks from public welfare programs. Less money to help old people heat their homes in winter. Less money to train single mothers for jobs. Less money to provide fruits and vegetables to kids.

A bold move. And cheap at half the price.


Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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