Pennsylvania has had school funding issues for a while. We are tops in the nation when it comes to local contributions; the state contributes a hair over 36% of the funding for secondary and elementary spending, which puts us well below the national average of 45.5%. We rank 45th out of 50 in state education financial support in K-12. Our state universities are likewise outstanding-- Pitt and Penn State boast the two most expensive in-state tuition costs in the country.
Local school districts carry a big part of the burden for funding their schools, which means, of course, that how much money a district can spend on its students is hugely affected by how much money the local district can gather through real estate taxes because, yeah, that's still how we do it here. A 2008 bill tried to make the funding formula compensate more equitably for local tax base weakness, but Corbett scrapped that and went back to an earlier formula, giving poor districts a double (at least) whammy.
Oh-- and no quick course corrections for PA schools. Act 1, passed in 2006, said that a district must ask for state permission and hold a referendum if they want to increase taxes beyond a very low ceiling. So even districts that have the means to make up the state shortfall are hogtied when it comes to raising tax revenues.
There's more. Remember how some people got suckered back ten years ago into thinking that real estate would be a constant source of vastly growing investment income? On that list of suckers you'll find the state of Pennsylvania, which bet the education pension fund on that giant scam. PA teacher pensions are defined benefit pensions, meaning that we get a pre-determined payout and it's up to the state to make sure the money's there to pay it. When the bottom fell out, the state and local school districts found themselves on the hook for massive pension payments to make up the non-growth of the investments. PA's legislature dealt with this potential crisis by saying, "Yeah, let's just wait and see if things get better on their own." They didn't. Now the state and local districts are trying to deal with the biggest balloon payment ever.
Wealthy districts have been able to pick up the slack from all these budgetary pressures. Poor districts have not. Critics are now saying that to bring poor districts up to parity with rich ones would cost at least a billion dollars.
In the meantime, the AP report shows that rich districts now spend as much as $4K more per student than the poorest districts. That's an increase of about $2,300 more per student. A study from the Center for American Progress last summer crowned Pennsylvania and Illinois the king and queen of school spending inequality.
Tom Corbett didn't create this mess single-handedly. Previous governor Ed Rendell, who was no friend of public education or the teachers who work there, created an extra booby-trap by spending stimulus money to prop up the regular education budget. The GOP-controlled legislature gets credit for making a hash of the pension fund. But if Tom Corbett is not the guy who set the house on fire, he is the guy who told the fire department to go home because they weren't needed.
Corbett has been steadfast in hewing to the classic line that throwing money at schools doesn't make any difference. If that's true, then there should be no problem in taking all that "extra" money away from the wealthy districts and redistributing it to poor districts. After all, the extra $4K per student isn't making a difference, right?
Asked this month about the growing disparity, Corbett didn't point to his administration's policies. Rather, he said, it is a subject of great concern that lawmakers must figure out. He also said a system of 500 school districts that make independent budgeting decisions will complicate the effort to decide how much should be spent to educate a child or achieve parity between the rich and poor.
Corbett has absolutely refused to see his policies as exacerbating the problem. He does have a point about the 500 school districts. In the 1960s the state had even more, and they were almost-forcibly combined,, but each tiny district could join with any district it touched. Consequently, some counties have one unified district. My own county has four district (plus bits of a few others). Students in my building are picked up in the morning and driven through another district and then back into our district (which is shaped kind of like a big backwards E). It is, frankly, an inefficient mess. Several governors have tried to address it, but communities are not going to give up their identities easily.
When confronted with the issue of moving money into poor districts, Corbett told the AP, "So who do I take it away from?"
Corbett's administration has been marked by a real reluctance to take money away from anybody. Pennsylvania should be cashing in on the big marcellus shale boom, but Harrisburg has been determined to charge as little in fees and taxes as they can. Corbett was also determined to make PA attractive to businesses by taking away as little of their money as possible. But critics say that his determination to reverse Pennsylvania's reputation as a business-unfriendly state has left the state treasury with a huge revenue gap.
I am always cautious about using the cost-per-pupil figure, but even if we aren't certain what the figures mean exactly, the change in them sends a clear message. In Pennsylvania, the poor districts are falling behind with less revenue, less money for staff, for buildings, for resources, for basic maintenance. York is one example of what happens next-- after gutting their budget, the state can then declare that they are no longer fit to govern their own schools. This starvation diet is a perfect setting for privatization.
It's politically pleasing to lambaste Tom Corbett over this, and he certainly made things worse, but Pennsylvania has a problem bigger than partisan politics. In a few days, a new governor takes over. I have no idea if Tom Wolf is going to make things better or not-- Pennsylvania has not had an education governor in my lifetime. But I do know that things are as bad right now as they've ever been, and if you're in a poor school district, they're worse than that.