Saturday, July 25, 2015

PA: Legislator Misunderstands School Costs

Not just any legislator. Today we're talking about Mike Folmer. Folmer is the Vice-chair of the Education Committee, a businessman (seems to mostly have worked in sales) who was first elected in 2006, one of the many "reform" candidates swept in after Pennsylvanians snapped under the final straw of the legislatures infamous late night Give Themselves A Raise shenanigans (an event infamous enough to get its own wikipedia page).

Folmer had a bout with non-Hodgkins lymphoma a few years back (not as scary as some of the big-name cancers, but damn, it does suck), which may or may not have something to do with his passionate support for legalizing marijuana (it's "part of God's creation he has given us.") Beyond that, he has been a reliably conservative lawmaker; just a couple of years ago, he had a hand in the plan to empower universities to disempower local voters and taxpayers by chartering schools. Folmer loves him some choice. Yup. Vice-Chair of the Education Committee.

So here comes Folmer with a piece that ran first on his own web page and then was picked up by the Patriot News site. It's worth a look to understand some of the misconceptions running around the state capital.

Folmer opens with a bunch of numbers, but his basic point is "OMGZ!! We are spend so many of the moneys on schools! Soooo much!!!!!" He is particularly concerned that, as much as we spend, now Governor Tom Wolf wants to spend more.

Folmer cites (as he often does) the line from the state constitution about education: “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” And the he arrives at his point:

The current system is far from efficient:  for each dollar invested in education, just 37 cents goes into classrooms. Most of the money -- 62 percent -- goes to the salaries, healthcare, continuing education, pensions, and other benefits of the adults in education.  How many of us would support a charity where just 38 percent of the monies collected go to the purpose of the charity while 62 percent goes for overhead?

I've run into this misunderstanding before with people from the business world. I once listened to one of my own board members, who owned a concrete business, express absolute astonishment that such a high percentage of the school budget was personnel costs

Folmer and others like him are failing to understand how costs break down in a sector that provides a service. Schools don't make anything; they don't spend big money on raw materials, or marketing, or equipment to turn the raw material into a finished product.

Folmer's contention that just 37 cents goes into the classroom is just wrong. The "adults in education" also go into the classroom. Every cent spent on a teacher goes straight into a classroom. 

A school is not a charity, and teachers are not "overhead." A school provides a valuable service, and teachers are the people who actually do the work. A sports team that wants to be successful-- either in terms or winning or in drawing fans and making money (all of which are, of course, linked)-- does not try to build success by cutting its personnel costs to the bone. The Yankees do not list A-Rod as an overhead cost.

After bemoaning how people react poorly to him when he cites his "facts," Folmer wraps up with this:

To me, education should focus first – and always – on students.  However, in the current debate over education funding, students are used mostly to demand more and more money – because:  "it's for the kids."

As vice-chair of the education committee, Folmer is surely aware that Pennsylvania has the worst spending gap between rich and poor schools in the nation. Well, maybe he's aware of it. Folmer is the former head of the ed committee, and he wrote about what he learned in that position. He is disappointed in the teachers unions, and he likes to talk to bright, sparkly students. He knows that the PA pension is a mess, and he expects that people will want to spend more money on schools. And to fix all this....well, nothing. But to address the funding gap will, in fact, require a bunch of money; if he doesn't think so, Folmer needs to explain what other solution would address the issue. If he thinks PA should embrace its spot at the bottom of the heap proudly, then he needs to go ahead and make his case for that.

Finding the political will to deal with PA's education problems is going to be hard. Right now we're stuck in our annual budget stalemate. Our new Democratic governor unseated a one-term incumbent, which has happened before pretty much never, but our GOP would like to govern as it never happened this time, either. We have huge financial problems, and it will take billions-with-a-B to fix them, and nobody is going to love the solutions for where that comes from. It's going to take politicians with guts and vision to pull this off. Oh, and it will also take politicians with a basic understanding of how school costs really work.


  1. Typical conservative: no imagination. Unless something affects them personally, they don't get it. Folmer had cancer, so he's for legalizing marijuana. If he hadn't had cancer, no way would that happen.

    Excellent point about how teachers are not "overhead." Would that Folmer reads this.

  2. Actually, even in a charity, direct line workers who work directly with the clients (the homeless, cancer patients, at-risk kids, whatever) are not considered "overhead", nor, I believe are their immediate supervisors (I'm not as sure about that last part though).