This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
A mere three years after the “costing-out” study declared that it would take $4.4 billion more to adequately educate all the Commonwealth’s students, Pennsylvania legislators are growing restive about the state’s commitment to an increased investment in schools.
Many are questioning the new funding formula that is designed to address stark spending inequities among districts.
The recession and tight state funding have worn away much of the consensus around the formula, adopted in 2008. Still, legislative concerns around education spending and policy are complex and don’t easily break down along party lines.
Democrats are more likely to be concerned about the equity and adequacy goals embodied in the formula, but in increasing numbers they are also supporting school choice, including vouchers.
“Look, when we’re pouring tens of billions of dollars into our education system each year, and we are still unable to provide the basic civil right of education for our students, there is something fundamentally wrong,” said Sen. Anthony Dinniman of Chester County, Democratic chair of the Education Committee. “Republicans and Democrats alike understand that.”
Some, mostly Republicans, have long been firmly convinced that more money will not increase student achievement and are not troubled by huge spending gaps among districts.
But even some of those concerned about the gaps question whether the formula, which allocates money to districts based on enrollment and student needs including poverty and English-language status, can or should be maintained. In this camp are several Philadelphia Democrats.
“Simply throwing money at education doesn’t solve the problem, and there are a number of studies which reveal that, unfortunately,” said Sen. Anthony Williams of Philadelphia, who ran for governor in the Democratic primary with a war chest largely provided by wealthy school choice advocates. “As much as I’m proud to say I’m sending an increased amount of money to schools in Philadelphia and Delaware County, the question is, ‘Will it be effective in … providing a quality education for the child?’”
Rep. Dwight Evans, another Philadelphia Democrat, is one of the architects of the new formula. He acknowledges that fully funding it is not a priority for legislators.
“Education policy is always subject to the state of the economy at any given time,” said Johnna Pro, spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee, which Evans heads. “We had a six-year plan to meet the funding target, and that is always a goal. … Unfortunately, the economy sank.”
Rep. James Roebuck, another Philadelphia Democrat, defended the formula and would like to see it fully funded. But he said it is in jeopardy if Republican Tom Corbett is elected governor and Republicans take the Pennsylvania House along with the Senate.
“The current governor has been very committed to that formula. I’m not sure that … the next governor will be, especially in a recession,” he said.
Gov. Ed Rendell is also concerned. He considers the adequacy and equity formula, and increasing the state share of education spending, to be among his most important legacies.
But he is confident that, despite some disagreement among them, Democrats will fight for the formula.
“If Democrats retain the House, [Republicans] can’t strip the education formula,” he said. “It won’t happen. That’s why my major effort this year will be to help the Democrats retain a majority in the House.”
Differing views of equity
Some Republicans go beyond questioning the correlation between spending and results. They argue that their constituents are shortchanged when their money is sent to districts like Philadelphia, where, despite steady gains, overall achievement levels remain low. They define equity as spreading state money more evenly, not using aid to make up for shortfalls in impoverished districts.
“I would change the formula so that school districts like mine would get a fairer share of the dollars,” said Rep. Paul Clymer, Republican of Bucks County. He noted that half of Philadelphia’s education dollars come from the state, compared to 26 percent in his district, Penn Ridge. “We need to bring about some equity.”
He said that recent headlines bolster his position that Philadelphia is not a good investment.
“When I read news articles about the salaries provided for Superintendent [Arlene] Ackerman, and all these other positions with big salaries, it seems like…there is no financial crisis facing the School District,” he said. In Penn Ridge, “we have said we are not going to make any pay increases and are looking for ways to cut back.”
He called Philadelphia’s administrative salaries “unconscionable” in tight times. Ackerman makes $338,000, and just received a $65,000 bonus.
Dinniman, while committed to the formula’s premise, said that a tough economy changes the political equation. Even though his constituents are relatively well-off, the recession is causing distress, he said.
“Suburban senators and representatives are saying we are the ones giving a majority of what goes into the state [through income taxes] … but we’re not getting any of it back,” he said. With suburban districts facing cuts, “we’re not going to be as enthusiastic about education funds going to other areas.”
Dinniman also noted how heavily the state has relied on federal stimulus dollars to keep up state aid levels. When those disappear next year, “we’re going to have … to really address the fact that there is … no money in the system,” he said.
Senate Education Chairman and Dauphin County Republican Jeffrey Piccola declined several requests for an interview. But he frequently emphasizes that he doesn’t think increased funding improves student outcomes and commissioned a study that recently drew that conclusion. Conducted by Joseph Merlino of the 21st Century Partnership for Math and Science, it studied 11th grade PSSA and SAT scores in 498 districts between 2007 and 2009.
The report said that the biggest predictors of better achievement are whether districts have a high percentage of adults with college degrees, a high percentage of White students, and a low percentage of students in poverty, not how much was spent per pupil. It concludes that what’s important is not how much money is sent to districts but how districts use the money, and urges more research on what specific investments produce the most gains.
Shift of focus
Williams has introduced legislation that would give students in low-performing districts state-funded “scholarships” to use in private or parochial schools. The legislation has become a lightning rod in the gubernatorial race, with both candidates supporting it.
“Options should be available where they are desired,” Williams said. “People should not be limited [in their school choices] based on their income. That’s not fair.”
Williams, however, said he is not anti-public education: “I’m not the guy who wants to cut education funding; I’m just the guy who wants to examine what it’s used for.”
Dinniman, the Democratic education chair, doesn’t discount the importance of adequate funding either, but he said that fiscal limitations require a different way of thinking. A charter proponent, he wants unions and educational bureaucrats – what he calls the educational-industrial complex – to “rethink some of the work rules, manners of effective teaching, teacher evaluations…and be part of the long-term solution.”
The fiscal crisis, he said, “gives us the opportunity to change the face of education, compromise and innovate.”