John Baer: On school spending - let's get sensible

Posted: May 23, 2011

PUBLIC EDUCATION'S crisis du jour provides another opportunity to question our government and school advocates and to plead for common sense.

The education community is in full froth over Gov. Corbett's proposed cuts, which, arguments go, slaughter cities, punish the poor and disproportionately hurt minorities.

Philly schools face a budget deadline next Tuesday, a $629 million deficit, school closings and mass layoffs of teachers, administrators and support employees. The Pennsylvania League of Urban Schools calls Corbett's budget "discriminatory," saying that it hits minorities and lower-income folks the hardest.

And groups representing school overseers say that a statewide survey shows that "drastic cuts will impair the ability to deliver quality education." We hear how much harm Corbett's causing. We watch kids used as props at rallies demanding more money. We skim numbers and sound-bites without looking deeper. But we never seem to seek or find sensible solutions. Take the statewide survey by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.

Only about half the state's 500 school districts responded. (Philly, no surprise, did not.) And only 8 percent of districts said that they face or "anticipate" a deficit. I'm not sure this suggests a statewide crisis.

Take minorities and poorer districts getting jammed. It is ever thus. Minorities are in poorer districts. Republicans run the state. Those districts aren't represented by Republicans. This isn't about money following kids. This is about money following constituents. Think rallies change that?

Take Philly schools (please). Do they bear no responsibility for decades of coddling unions and finding the highest-paid bosses on the planet?

State budgets reflect priorities of those shaping them. We're an aging state that pumps money into senior citizens and health care. We're a conservative state that pumps money into prisons. We have a Guv who promised no taxes. You do the math.

Speaking of math, Corbett's point that state funds for schools are not being cut is correct. His proposed basic-ed spending of $5.2 billion is a statewide 2.06 percent increase. The "cuts" are the result of federal stimulus funds ending - as every school district knew they would.

Now let's look at the funding formula. Every district, poorest to richest, gets increases. Philly's is 1.8 percent, below the state average even though Philly's a poorer district; 61 percent poverty.

But many wealthier districts get increases above the average. For example: Pine-Richland, in Allegheny County, 4.5 percent increase (5 percent poverty); Delco's Garnet Valley, 4.4 percent increase (6 percent poverty); Camp Hill, in Cumberland County, 4 percent increase (7 percent poverty).

Also, every district (except Montco's Jenkintown and Bryn Athyn) gets "poverty supplement" funds: districts with 2 percent poverty, such as Unionville-Chadds Ford, in Chester County; districts with 90 percent poverty, such as Reading, in Berks County. The statewide total is $16.9 million. Shouldn't per-district increases more closely reflect poverty levels? And do wealthier districts really need a "poverty supplement?"

Plus, as I wrote last month, all but 16 districts have "unreserved" funds tucked away that can be used for any purpose. (Philadelphia, of course, has nothing.) The most recent accounting shows a statewide balance of $2.7 billion.

How about using these tax dollars before whining for more?

Finally, U.S. Census data say that we're 48th nationally in state-share education spending, a number that advocates use like a hammer. But we're 12th when local and federal tax dollars are included. Since it's all your money, isn't the total a more accurate measure? I'm not arguing for more spending. I'm not suggesting less spending. I'm saying that data and dollars should be used more sensibly - by government, schools and advocates.

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