So what difference does a budget actually make? Why should we care that we wound up with the Republican budget for this year (HB 1801), rather than the bi-partisan budget agreed to in December 2015 (SB 1073), let alone the budget Governor Wolf proposed in March 2015?
The difference for the education of our kids is found in this first figure above. The $846 million cut from classrooms in 2011-2012 has never fully been restored. And because more funding was cut and less funding restored in the districts that have a higher poverty than a lower poverty rate, state spending per student in those districts remains substantially behind what it was in 2010-11. We call the difference between what was spent per student in 2010-11 and what is spent today the “funding gap.”
The bi-partisan budget – the one agreed to by Governor Wolf and the leaders of the Democratic and Republicans caucuses in the state House and Senate in December – increased classroom spending by $377 million. It would have substantially reduced, but not closed, the remaining funding gap in the districts with the highest poverty rate, reducing it to $217 per student. The funding gap in the schools with the lowest poverty rate would be reduced to $29.
The Republican budget appropriated $177 million less than the the bi-partisan budget for Basic Education Funding, the Ready to Learn program, and Special Education. And, their fiscal code bill would have distributed education funding in a way that provided far less to schools in high poverty districts, even though those schools were hardest hit by the Corbett cuts. Thus they would have left the funding gap for the schools with the highest poverty rate at $441. The funding gap for the lowest poverty schools would be $56.
And note that the disparity in reducing the state funding gap comes on top of what was already one of the most unequal distributions of total education spending in the entire country. As we’ve pointed out recently, schools in low-poverty districts in Pennsylvania spend 33% more than those in high-poverty districts. (And, of course, these figures do not account for the impact of inflation on reducing the value of state funding.)
So what difference does a budget make? It’s the difference between providing all of our kids an adequate education or drastically short-changing kids, especially those who live in high-poverty areas. And that makes a difference. For the states that fund their schools equally have the best results.
The inequality in the education we give to rich and poor kids in Pennsylvania has long been morally indefensible. And the inadequate Republican budget we are now living under in 2015-16 does little to improve or relieve it. We must do better in the budget for 2016-17 fiscal year.
Some Technical Details
1. For those who want the whole picture, figure 2, provides the rest of the story. We have divided the 500 school districts in Pennsylvania into four groups of 125 school districts each, based on the percentage of children under 18 living below the poverty line. To make figure 1 easier to grasp, we excluded the middle two quartiles. They can be found in figure 2.
2. We also excluded Governor Wolf’s original budget proposal for 2015-16. It is included in figure 2. The Governor’s proposal was even better than the bi-partisan budget. Even it did not completely close the classroom funding gap. But the Governor explicitly said that his proposal for 2015-16 was the first part of a multi-year plan to create adequate and equitable funding for our schools.
3. There we explain in more detail We also want to be clear about exactly what we are talking about when we say “classroom funding.” We are not referring to overall levels of spending on education at the PreK-12 level. The total level of spending can be useful for some purposes but it can also be misleading. The state spends a great deal on education that is important but does not find its way directly into the classroom. For example, while funding for public libraries and school transportation is important, money spent for these purposes does not directly affect what happens in the classroom. That is also true, in a different way, for teacher’s pensions. Good pensions help schools attract and retain excellent teachers. But the recent rise in spending on teacher’s pension does not reflect a new commitment to improving the quality of teachers in our schools.
To compensate for these and other vagaries in PreK-12 education funding, PBPC has developed a narrower definition of the state’s commitment to education which we call “classroom funding.” It includes the basic education subsidy for each school district plus formula enhancements, charter reimbursements, accountability block grants, and, when looking back at previous years, funding for schools that came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). (see footnote)
4. Finally, for reasons we’ve discussed elsewhere, we should point out that the Governor, rightly, vetoed the most recent fiscal code bill, which used the new funding formula to distribute the new state funding for education included in the Republican budget. We support the new funding formula. But as we’ve pointed out before, we believe that the only way to be fair to all schools is to apply the formula for new school funding after the funding gap from 2010-11 is restored. The Governor has not announced how he will distribute the new funding included in the Republican budget. We hope that the Governor distributes more of this money to the high-poverty schools that have a large funding gap, as he did with the funding he did not line-item veto in the appropriation bill adopted in December, HB 1460.
For more details about recent changes in state funding for education and the different 2015-16 budget proposals, that put forward by Governor Wolf, by the Republicans and as a result of the bi-partisan negotiations, see our recent paper Understanding the Numbers in a Budget Crisis.
For more detail on classroom funding and the data sources necessary to estimate classroom funding each year, see Waslala Miranda, Undermining Educational Opportunity: Pennsylvania’s Unequal Restoration of School Funding, Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, October 21, 2015, online at https://pennbpc.org/sites/pennbpc.org/files/finaledcutsbrief.pdf