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Education budget tinkering in Pennsylvania took more dollars from poor communities, expert says

MahurinEcon_Thumb1_1811.jpg
MahurinEcon_Thumb1_1811.jpg

After cutting roughly $900 million in direct funding to K-12 education several weeks ago, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania told reporters Tuesday school districts have themselves to blame. But an education professor from the University of Rutgers begs to differ, mining past the policy minutiae to arrive with hard numbers that suggest Corbett’s administration could have spent the state’s money more equitably.

The Morning Call reports that Corbett said districts forced to keep teaching positions unfilled “have their own financial decisions they have to make.”

Corbett concluded, “I would note that many of them took federal [stimulus] money, were told the federal money would go away, made their budgets based on that, and now that money is not there.” The governor’s budget matches state spending levels of 2008-2009.

While the state’s coffers took a beating since the country’s economic downturn, enough money was available to keep funding for Pennsylvania’s mainly lower-income students from taking additional hits, says Bruce Baker, a professor of education at Rutgers who also contributes to the influential National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

After looking at budgeting priorities of various states, Baker noticed that more federal funding fed into short comes in dollar streams allocated to wealthier districts than poor districts. Once Pennsylvania’s share of the $48.3 billion states received in 2009 through the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF) dried up, more money was cut from poorer districts while wealthier ones saw no change in state contributions to their education costs. “They’ve hammered the poor districts with [a] warped shell game,” he said.

By analogy, Baker offered this explanation to The American Independent:

For example, let’s say I have a family assistance program, where poor families get a total allocation of $800 per family per year for food assistance, and rich families still get $100 (even though they don’t need it.) Let’s say we’ve only got two families in the system, one rich and one poor. Because of a recession, my state funding is $200 short this year, but the feds give me a stimulus of $200 to replace it. I could use my $700 in state money for the poor family, and given $100 each in federal money to each family. I’ve still honored my formula which is intended to yield $800 for the poor family and $100 for the rich one.

But, what [Corbett] did was to say that the poor family got $200 in [federal] money and $600 in state money and the rich family got $100 in state money. So, when the fed money is gone, the rich family still gets $100 in state money and the poor family gets $600 in state money – but $200 less than the previous year.

The next twist was to give the rich family $102 in state money the next year, and give the poor family $612 the next year, so each got a 2% increase in state money, but the rich family actually gets a $2 increase and the poor family gets a $188 cut in total funding.

Corbett, in his defense, maintains his budget provides more for education than what the previous governor, Democrat Ed Rendell, called for in 2009. Morning Call reports Corbett’s defenders say his budget should be interpreted as an increase in funding

Pennsylvania, like most states in the union, could not have steered through the recession without the stimulus funding. Jennifer Cohen, an education policy analyst at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., wrote in an email that states were allowed to roll back their education contributions to 2006 levels, with SFSF dollars filling in the void.

Formula Funding Issues

Baker’s second contention is how those additional 2 percent increases were calculated. Like many aspects of public budgeting, schools receive funding by a formula, known as “formula spending.” As Cohen explains, “most education funding formulas take into account lots of things in addition to population like poverty [and] cost of living,” to impact the communities that have lower income levels and small tax revenues.

Baker says Corbett, and other state leaders like Governors John Kasich in Ohio and Andrew Cuomo in New York, aims to provide any increased aid in a flat, “off the formula” distribution. “That is,” he says, “any increases would be a flat percent and not driven through the formula calculations that would drive more funding back to poor districts.”

The implications of going off the formula can be a mixed blessing, says Raegen Miller, an education funding analyst at the Center for American Progress. Depending on how progressive or regressive state funding mechanisms are, “that can either improve equity or exacerbate inequity,” he says. When funding decisions are made irrespective of socio-economic indicators, the money is a lump sum that is evenly distributed by the number of students — small communities can end up with more aid.

Regardless of the jargon, however, Miller warns that, “off the formula funds aren’t subject to whatever other checks and balances you have in state and local funding.”

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