How education funding became Gov. Corbett's big problem

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

This year, the School District of Philadelphia, by far Pennsylvania's largest with 135,149 students and 58,643 more enrolled in charters, had to make deep cuts to close a $304 million shortfall.

Though Gov. Tom Corbett has never visited Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, his presence there looms large. 

“Our staff is starting to fall apart,” says teacher Amy Roat, who provides a rapid-fire audit of her middle school’s condition during a short break between classes. “We probably have lost about 40 percent of our staff over the last three years,” even though the city school enrolls about 610 students, nearly the same number as before, and mostly all of them are poor.

Like many teachers, Roat blames the problems at her school partly on Gov. Tom Corbett’s 2011 budget: It cut more than $865 million in K-12 public education funds. This year, the School District of Philadelphia, by far Pennsylvania’s largest with 135,149 students and 58,643 more enrolled in charters, had to make deep cuts to close a $304 million shortfall. 

In a scramble to cover the staffing gap, the Feltonville school has been forced to teach students from two different grades in combined classes, Roat says. Math instruction has been cut in half. There is no music teacher and only one art teacher. The school is much dirtier and sometimes dangerous because cleaners, counselors and a police officer have also gotten pink slips. During a recent out-of-control fire drill, a teacher tripped and sustained a concussion. The nurse is part-time.

“It all flows from the state and its unfair funding formula,” says Roat, referring to the fact that Pennsylvania, under Corbett, scrapped a measure that considers needs, like the number of students who are living in poverty or are English-language learners. The result: huge shortfalls in poorer districts like Philadelphia, and teachers continuing to spend hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets to buy paper and other basic supplies. Remarkably, the governor has not made one documented visit to a district-run Philly school during his time in office.  

As Corbett, one of America’s most politically vulnerable and least popular governors, launches his 2014 re-election bid, the nightmare school scenario that Roat describes is sure to haunt his campaign.

Over the past three years, Corbett has defended the cut to education funding, denied making the cut, and even tried to turn the budget crisis to his political advantage by attacking the teachers’ union. So far, all of his strategies have failed. He blames his predecessor, former Gov. Ed Rendell, for plugging his budgets with one-time stimulus funding, which is why, Corbett insists, the nearly $1 billion education-funding cut is a myth. He also blames predecessors from both parties for forcing him to spend a ton of money on long-underfunded and Wall-Street-wrecked public-employee pension funds; and he contends that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is selfishly refusing to make sacrifices. 

For voters, however, it is the stark reality of the situation that seems to matter most: Pennsylvania schools had been operating in a state of austerity for years; under Corbett, some have tipped into starvation. 

In an October poll by Franklin and Marshall College, the Republican governor’s approval rating among registered voters — those who think he was doing an “excellent” or “good” job — sat at 19 percent. An August poll found that voters rank education as their number-two priority, just behind unemployment and the economy. When it comes to “improving public education,” 83 percent of respondents graded his effort a C or worse.

Today, Corbett seems weary of the discussion about public education. And he evinces little empathy.

“We’re here in Philadelphia, and certainly education is on the front page every day. And I know that. And I want to commend the SRC [School Reform Commission] and I want to commend the School District for the work that they have been doing. And we’ve been working hard to find money for them,” Corbett said on Nov. 7, kicking off his re-election campaign inside a Northeast Philadelphia American Legion Post as teachers and students protested loudly outside. “But, you know, right now in Philadelphia, we send $1.3 billion to one school district. We have other school districts. We have 499 other school districts.”

Corbett wants to move on. The governor’s campaign slogan is standard Republican fare: “Less Taxes. More Jobs.” 

The message is simple, though factually debatable. 

Corbett claims to have added nearly 140,000 jobs, though an Arizona State University analysis pegs Pennsylvania’s growth rate at 45th out of 50 states. Pennsylvania lost 27,108 public-school jobs over the past three school years, according to federal data. And cash-strapped localities have been forced to enact record property-tax hikes to make up for the state cuts. 

Though the state constitution requires the General Assembly to provide for public schools, the state’s less affluent districts have had to fend for themselves. The question of whether Corbett can win re-election will ultimately come down to whether he can convince Pennsylvanians that the school-funding mess is not his fault.

In October 2010, as Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell neared the end of his second and final term, he realized that his legacy was in trouble.

“If the Republicans have both the governorship and both chambers of the legislature, then I think education funding is in real jeopardy,” he told the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

Rendell had made public schools his top priority, increasing annual state basic-education funding by a total of $992 million during his last four years in office. Much of that increase came in response to a “costing-out study” commissioned by the legislature, which determined that schools statewide were underfunded by $4.4 billion; in Philadelphia, the shortfall totaled $1 billion. Rendell pledged to begin closing the gap, and dispensed the new funds through a formula enacted in 2008 that awarded money based on student need.

Rendell made his spending commitments in the midst of a recession, when tax revenues were dropping fast. He tapped $1.3 billion in one-time federal stimulus dollars to pay for two years of basic-education increases. Some of the stimulus dollars (including $355 million in 2009) also made up for reductions in the state contribution.

The stimulus funds were intended to avoid tax hikes and spending cuts amid the recession. But Republicans protested the use of one-time federal dollars to pay for recurring costs. 

“I don’t see, from what we’ve seen so far, how you’re not going to leave the next governor with a disaster on their hands,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jake Corman (R-Centre County) in March 2009. “We know they’re going to cut our [stimulus] funding in two years. We need to be prepared.”

Rendell proposed ways to make up for the expiring federal dollars, including cracking down on the use of Delaware as a corporate tax haven and the imposition of a severance tax on natural-gas drillers. But a backlash was in the making. In his race for governor in 2010, Corbett, then state attorney general, was the clear favorite over Tea Party challenger Sam Rohrer, then a state rep from Berks County. Like other establishment Republicans, however, Corbett moved quickly to mollify the party’s mobilized right wing. The conservative movement was afire, and a rising Tea Party movement pledged to take over government — and radically shrink it.

In February 2010, Corbett signed a pledge drafted by Washington anti-tax icon Grover Norquist to “oppose and veto any and all efforts to increase taxes.” The election that November brought Corbett to power, and put both houses of the legislature under GOP control. The Republicans refused to raise taxes — indeed, they continued to cut them — and their 2011 budget cut more than $1 billion to schools and universities.

“This budget sorts the must-haves from the nice-to-haves,” Corbett told the legislature in March 2011, in unveiling his proposed spending plan. “I am here to say that education cannot be the only industry exempt from recession.” 

In the following months, the governor dismissed concerns over school-employee layoffs, telling school districts that they had only themselves to blame: “Many of them took federal money, were told the federal money would go away, made their budgets based on that, and now that money is not there,” he said.

But by 2012, protests mounted, local budget gaps widened, and school districts planned property-tax hikes to stay afloat. The Corbett administration tried a strategy that was counterintuitive: They said there had been no cut to education at all. 

“Political opponents of the governor will cling to this myth of a $1 billion cut so long as the media goes along with the fiction,” spokesperson Kevin Harley complained to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that May.

That’s what Corbett is sticking with, and upon which he is banking his re-election in 2014: convincing voters everything they know about education funding is wrong. 

“We spend more money on education than any time in the history of Pennsylvania,” Corbett said at his Northeast Philadelphia event earlier this month. 

How is that possible if the 2011 budget cut $421 million to basic education and another $444 million to five other line items that schools depend on to operate?

Corbett maintains that the federal stimulus funding that Rendell used to bolster the education budget should not be considered when looking at budget changes. In addition, he makes his case by counting only the state contribution to one line item, “basic education.” In 2013, the state contribution to basic education was $5.53 billion — which is, indeed, $300 million higher than its 2008 peak under Rendell. 

But even accepting Corbett’s argument that federal stimulus dollars should be excluded, the state contribution to six key line items for education totaled $5.8 billion under Rendell in 2008, compared to $5.6 billion under Corbett in 2013.

And though Corbett restored $172 million in annual basic-education dollars over the past two years, they are no longer allocated via a needs-based formula. What replaced it? The non-transparent distribution of supplemental funds to allegedly politically favored districts — and Philadelphia is not among the chosen.

“There are only so many dollars you can get out of the taxpayer to pay for a system that is hemorrhaging money,” says Corbett’s campaign manager, Mike Barley. “What is the right number for education? I don’t think anybody knows that. And to that point, more isn’t always better. If my neighbor buys the same exact car and pays $5,000 more for it, that doesn’t make it better.”

Barley would not comment on the costing-out study’s proposed figure.

“If there’s a fault, it’s that we didn’t communicate the situation well enough in the beginning, and we’re going to work to tell that story,” Barley says. He blames the misinformation on “an agenda that’s pushed by union leaders, who are making a significant amount of money off the taxpayers, to advocate for more spending.” 

On Saturday, five of the eight Democratic gubernatorial primary candidates appeared at a forum hosted by labor unions and school-advocacy groups in Philadelphia. It was not really a debate, but more a friendly competition to determine which candidate could most forcefully denounce Corbett’s education policies — and not just the budget cuts.

Former Rendell revenue secretary and York businessman Tom Wolf pledged “charter-school accountability so that we’re not diverting funds unfairly from our public schools,” former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger decried the campaign to “privatize public education” and Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz pledged to abolish the state-controlled SRC, which took over the city’s schools in 2001.

The heated education-politics debate in Pennsylvania is about a lot more than funding. A bipartisan group of self-described school reformers seeks to curb teachers’ unions, expand privately managed charter schools and raise the stakes of standardized tests in evaluating teachers and schools. 

In recent years, public-school advocates, students and teachers have pushed back — and hard — criticizing an agenda they say ignores poverty and inequity in the name of private efficiency. 

Just last Friday, Republicans on the Pennsylvania Independent Regulatory Review Com-mission won a party-line vote that will require all students to pass a Keystone graduation test to receive their diplomas. Critics said that it is absurd for the state to require students to meet higher standards while cutting funds to their classrooms. 

The disagreement, fought out in school boards and statehouses nationwide, is known as the “education wars.” It’s not an exaggeration.

Some charter schools are excellent, while others are low-performing — or even corrupt. All benefit from a generous funding formula, the reform of which a 2012 Auditor General report estimates could save $365 million. 

In Philadelphia, where nearly half of the state’s 176 charter schools are located, the district has estimated that it costs an additional $7,000 for each student who attends a charter. This year, the district will pay at least 30 percent of its budget, or $729 million, to the privately managed schools. 

Corbett seeks to decrease the already weak oversight of charter schools, and has expanded voucher-like tax credits to businesses that donate money to private-school tuition. He has also tried, and failed, to turn the education-policy warfare to his political advantage. 

The big opportunity came in July, when the Obama administration forgave $45 million in state debt to assist Philadelphia schools. The Corbett administration conditioned the release of the one-time funding on “a new collective-bargaining agreement with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers that makes substantial progress toward achieving the fiscal savings and academic reforms” called for by the SRC. Among the changes being sought were ending teacher seniority and getting $133 million in union concessions from teachers. 

Though most Philadelphia teachers, unlike most others, do not contribute to their health-care coverage, they are paid 19 percent less than many of their suburban counterparts. Reform groups, like the Philadelphia Schools Partnership and StudentsFirst, quickly backed Corbett’s move — even though it meant withholding critical funds from city schools.

“We support Governor Tom Corbett’s unwavering determination to deliver meaningful reforms prior to the release of funds,” read a statement from StudentsFirst Pennsylvania, the state chapter of the national group founded by former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. “Continuing to invest in a broken education system only hurts the very people it serves: our kids.”

The plan’s general outlines may have been laid out months in advance. In June, City Paper obtained a secret report written by a major Republican polling firm proposing that Corbett launch an attack on the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Conditioning state aid on union concessions the firm suggested could boost his flagging re-election prospects. 

“With Gov. Corbett’s weak job approval ... the current Philadelphia school crisis presents an opportunity for the governor to wedge the electorate on an issue that is favorable to him,” the report, commissioned by the education-reform group PennCAN, concludes. 

The report identified opposition to seniority protection for teachers. But it also found that 63 percent of Pennsylvanians opposed Corbett’s handling of public education. 

“Staging this battle presents Corbett with an opportunity to coalesce his base, focus on a key emerging issue in the state, and campaign against an ‘enemy’ that’s going to aggressively oppose him in ’14 in any case,” the report said. 

But the plan fell flat, and on Oct. 16, Corbett released the $45 million. 

The administration cited Superintendent William Hite’s decision to limit the use of seniority in mid-year teacher reassignments. But the decision was widely described as a capitulation in the face of a mounting public-education disaster. 

(Notably, Corbett maintains that the $45 million in forgiven federal debt directed to city schools is part of a state-funding package while the federal stimulus funds were not.)

Though the state’s Independent Fiscal Office forecasts a state budget shortfall of $839 million for the coming year, no new education cuts are likely for the next state budget. 

“Since the education budget has been so controversial and now looms as one of the big issues on the campaign, I don’t think there will be cuts,” says Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College. “Politically, that’s the last thing the governor needs. The governor does not want the narrative next year, as school opens, to be cuts to programs, layoffs to staff and the like.”

But there will be little chance for new funding either — not from a state legislature dominated by increasingly conservative and anti-tax Republicans who are locked into seats made safe via gerrymandering.

The School District of Philadelphia is now in the process of restoring 400 jobs, thanks to the $45 million that Corbett released. The District will need far more, however, to climb out of a financial hole projected to be $1.1 billion over five years. According to a Philadelphia Public School Notebook analysis, the district began this school year with nearly 7,000 fewer employees than at its 2009 peak. 

But this is far from the first crisis for Philadelphia public schools, and Pennsylvania voters have a reputation for hostility, some of it racially tinged, toward the city. Often, they characterize Philly as a cesspool of corruption and incompetence. In the case of the schools this is puzzling as they have been under been state control since 2001. 

Either way, the question remains: How have education cuts, of which Philly schools are the icon, become Corbett’s greatest political liability? It’s because this isn’t just about Philadelphia. 

The 2007 costing-out study says 471 districts state-wide spend less per student than needed, and the rise of charter schools, expired federal dollars, and rising pension costs pose a growing fiscal challenge to poor and middle-class districts across the state. 

“The problems that confront the school district in Philadelphia are the same problems that confront school districts across the state — except 60 times larger,” says Mark B. Miller, a school director with Centennial School District in Bucks County and vice president of the Pennsylvania School Board Association. “My district might have 600 students in charter schools that we don’t like having to pay for. Philadelphia’s got 60,000.”

Municipalities throughout Pennsylvania are also wary of further property-tax increases. In 2011, a record 135 school districts raised property taxes above the normal legal limit. 

The education-funding crisis, deepened by the budget cuts, has made Philadelphia’s predicament uncomfortably familiar to people in towns and cities statewide.

Pennsylvania’s constitution requires the state to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.” Over the next year, it will be hard for Corbett to convince voters that it is doing so.

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