Some Reality in Education Funding Debates Would Be Helpful

Recently the Governor visited the Clairton School District’s elementary school to continue his push for a much greater level of education funding.  He took the time to chide the Legislature for not allocating enough money to help districts such as Clairton.  He is quoted as saying “I understand that you can’t throw money at any problem, but you can’t keep taking money out…and hope to get a good result.”  The Governor ought to be reminded that over the years, more and more money has been thrown at the problem with little or no improvement in academic achievement.  Our Policy Briefs over the past few years have demonstrated this conclusion many times.

 

But one more demonstration is called for in view of the fact that the Governor is making the rounds of schools to make his case for more funding.  And, since he was in Clairton to make his pitch, we will start there.  Pennsylvania Department of Education Statistics (DoE) data for the 2004-2005 school year put Clairton City School District total revenue at $12.82 million.  Breaking that down by source, the District collected $3.49 million locally (27 percent), $8.04 million from the state (63 percent) and the remaining amount from Federal sources $1.26 million (about ten percent).

 

Nearly a decade later,  revenue data for the 2013-2014 school year (the latest available from the DoE), place total revenues at $14.19 million, an increase of nearly eleven percent from 2004-2005.  Again, breaking out the sources of the money shows that the local contribution was $3.88 million (27 percent), the state pitched in $9.63 million (68 percent) while the Fed’s allocation fell to $674,771 (4.75 percent).  The state’s allocation increased by nearly twenty percent, local funding increased over eleven percent, while Federal funding fell by nearly half.  Clearly the money from the state and local taxpayers has been increasing, not falling, over time.

 

The following table shows how Clairton stacks up with other Pennsylvania districts that have similar enrollment levels for the period studied:  Farrell, Wilkinsburg, and Windber.

 

District Total Revenues (000s) State Revenues (000s)
2004-05 2013-14 % Change 2004-05 2013-14 % Change
Clairton City SD $12,821 $14,192 10.69 $8,038 $9,635 19.87
Farrell Area SD $13,700 $15,623 14.04 $8,213 $10,188 24.05
Wilkinsburg SD $27,967 $29,652 6.02 $10,415 $11,662 11.97
Windber Area SD $13,240 $15,269 15.32 $9,732 $11,405 17.19

 

 

The table above shows that none of the districts experienced a decline in revenue over the decade, either from the state or in total.  However, it does show that the percent increases in state revenue are much larger than boosts in overall revenue. Funding from Federal sources was cut for all but one of the districts (Windber rose 26.75 percent).  Conversely, local funding rose for these four districts.  Contrary to the Governor’s statement above, money has not been taken out of these districts at either the total, state, or local level.

 

Of course changes in the amounts of revenue are only part of the story. It is also important to look at per pupil numbers. Clairton’s enrollment in 2004-2005, (measured by average daily membership (ADM)) stood at 984.  However, by the 2013-14 school year it had fallen by about seven percent to 917.  Farrell’s enrollment fell 21.4 percent to 836; Wilkinsburg was off 29.3 percent to 1,265 and Windber declined by 15.37 percent to 1,210. As we noted in an earlier Policy Brief (Volume 15, Number55), the hold harmless provision prevents state basic education funding from falling even if enrollment does drop.

 

These changes in ADM affect the per pupil revenue amounts received by each district.  For the 2013-2014 academic year, Clairton’s total revenue per ADM was $15,478, a near 19 percent jump over the 2004-2005 levels.  This per pupil amount exceeds Windber ($12,621, up 36 percent) but is well below Wilkinsburg ($23,437, up nearly 50 percent), and Farrell ($18,695, up 45 percent).  Again with state revenues continuing to increase, along with local allocations, combined with declines in enrollment kept per pupil revenues climbing.

 

But, what about the amount of money spent on education?  The Governor and many educrats rarely, if ever, bring up the subject of district spending.  The following table looks at the total spending of the four districts in our sample.

 

District Total Expenditures (000s) Total Expenditures per ADM
2004-05 2013-14 % Change 2004-05 2013-14 % Change
Clairton City SD $13,317 $14,176 6.45 $13,540 $15,460 14.18
Farrell Area SD $13,378 $15,463 15.59 $12,570 $18,503 47.20
Wilkinsburg SD $26,696 $29,599 10.87 $14.930 $23,395 56.70
Windber Area SD $13,555 $15,502 14.36 $9,493 $12,814 34.98

 

The table above shows that each district in this small sample had jumps in the amount of total expenditures over the ten year period.  Clairton had the smallest rise while the largest went to Farrell.  More importantly, when compared to the increases to total revenues, only Clairton and Windber had the growth to revenues outpace those of total expenditures.

 

Against the backdrop of enrollment, we get a better idea of how much is being spent on a per-pupil basis.  As mentioned above, the ADM for these four districts in this sample fell, while for every district total expenditures climbed over the last ten years.  Clairton’s total expenditures per pupil came in at $15,460 (a little below the per-pupil revenues). Clairton total spending per student was about $400 above the state average. The District also spends about $1,600 more per pupil than the state average spending on instruction.

 

At $12,814 in per pupil expenditures, Windber had the lowest cost of educating its students in the sample. The Windber number is well below Clairton ($15,460), Farrell ($18,500) and Wilkinsburg ($23,395).

 

Clearly, the increase in education spending and revenues would not be as much of an issue if academic performance was stellar.  As we have said time and again, throwing money at the problem does not guarantee good results.

 

The following table illustrates the performance of 11th grade students on the Keystone Exams and the attendance rate of the highs schools in each district.

 

11th Grade Keystone Exams (2013-2014) % Scoring Advanced or Proficient in… Attendance (%)
District Math Reading
Clairton City HS 35.00 43.00 88.64
Farrell Area HS/UMS 18.00 32.00 93.95
Wilkinsburg HS 5.00 6.00 82.17
Windber Area HS 76.00 81.00 94.17

 

The percent of students scoring advanced or proficient in math is poor in three of the districts but truly abysmal in Wilkinsburg where spending per student is the highest. Only Windber posted a respectable score and it has the lowest expenditures per pupil. The results are similar with the reading portion of the exam.  Windber is the outlier in this sample.  They have a fairly high level of academic achievement yet, on a per-student basis, they spend far less than Clairton, Farrell and Wilkinsburg.

 

The final indicator taken into consideration is the attendance rate for the respective high schools.  It is no surprise that the district with the worst test scores also had the poorest attendance 82 percent —Wilkinsburg.  We documented the relationship between attendance and academic performance in an earlier Policy Brief (Volume 15, Number 30).

 

Clairton had an attendance rate below 90 percent while Windber’s was over 94 percent.  The seeming outlier is Farrell.  However, Farrell’s attendance rate also includes that of their upper middle school (UMS) which includes 7th and 8th graders.  Middle school grades typically have better attendance rates than the high schools and it is very possible the overall rate is being lifted by these middle school grades.

 

In short, the Governor’s call for huge increases in state education funding money is ill-conceived and specious. Data show that poorly performing districts receive and spend plenty of money, most of which comes from state taxpayers.  Yet academic results are frequently simply abominable especially in districts getting per-pupil state funding in excess of the state average. There are several additional PA districts besides those discussed here—such as Pittsburgh—that also spend large sums for mediocre results.

 

Rather than blithely repeating claims that education spending is inadequate, the Governor should be concerned about how so much state money can be spent and yet produce so little in the way of academic achievement. Maybe he could even ask his so-called experts if they have an answer to that question.  Obviously, if money were the answer, the problem would have been solved long ago. It would be instructive to spend some time studying districts such as Windber to see what they are doing to achieve good results with well below state average spending. As a start, the study might focus some attention on attendance rates that are so problematic at many of the failing schools.

Education Funding Commission is a Distraction from Real Issues: Part I-Equity

What is the most pressing problem with public education in Pennsylvania?  According to the teachers’ unions, the Governor, the education establishment, and their allies in the Legislature, it is inadequate and unfair funding of schools.  The same argument that has been made for decades.  And recently arrived is yet another commission report offering more schemes to solve the purported funding issues.

 

This comes against the backdrop of National Association of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2013 statistics that show Pennsylvania’s overall academic achievement record through 8th grade stacks up well nationally—beating the national averages handily and certainly far from the disaster some portray it to be in order to justify large increases in funding. The record is somewhat better for white students (ranked 7th highest among the 50 states in 8th grade reading and math) than black students (ranked 14th in 8th grade math and 15th in fourth grade reading).  Unfortunately, the NAEP reports 12th grade results for only a handful of states so it is not possible to do a similar comparison of Pennsylvania with other states for high school seniors. This could be an area of concern given the tendency in many districts for achievement scores to drop in the higher grades relative to those in elementary schools.

 

But returning to the original question posed above, the correct answer to “what is the most pressing problem with public education,” is simple. To wit, it is the ongoing miserable failure of many school districts to educate children to anything approaching an acceptable level of competence despite expenditures per student far above the state average. And we know this because there are school districts in Pennsylvania that spend at or below the state average per pupil ($15,019) and yet have high schools that rank among the top schools in the state on academic achievement (Peters, Hampton, and Pine-Richland are prime examples). Thus, spending levels alone cannot be the answer.

 

And what else do we know to be true?  Top ranked academic performance districts compared to very poor performing districts with well above average per student outlays  receive a relative pittance in state funding compared to the amounts received by those poorly performing districts. Data to illustrate this truth are shown below.

 

The question then arises: what educational metric, other than achievement test scores, is most different between high schools with excellent performance in the low spending districts and high schools with abject performance failure in high spending districts?   The answer: absenteeism, especially in high schools. Not teacher qualifications, not the absence of free breakfasts or free lunches, not the absence of remedial programs, not the lack of access to resources, not lack of special programs. Absenteeism is a huge difference. There might be other corollary measures but absenteeism is a place to start because it serves as a proxy for a lack of interest in, and commitment to, becoming educated.

 

Part II of this Brief, to be released shortly, will provide an empirical demonstration of the correlation of high absenteeism and extremely poor academic achievement.

 

Back to the questions of funding adequacy and fairness.  Consider the following data. The ten lowest  ranked school systems based on academic achievement in the 2013-2014 school year include in order, Duquesne, Wilkinsburg, Sto-Rox, Chester-Upland, Steelton Highspire, Aliquippa, Clairton, Greater Johnstown, Farrell, and Reading.

 

Using PA Department of Education data we find that in the 2013-2014 these ten failing districts had average (non-weighted) revenue per student of $16,684 of which $10,562 came from state funding, $4,545 was raised locally and $1,186 came from Federal sources. Other sources such as debt issues and private gifts make up the small remaining amount of funding. Bear in mind that average total spending per student in Pennsylvania was $15,019.

 

Within this group of poorest performing districts, Duquesne led with $25,603 in total revenue per student; $20,310 came from the state and $1,534 from Federal sources. And yet Duquesne, despite this enormous revenue, was the lowest ranked district academically. Chester-Upland, Farrell, and Clairton each received more than $10,000 per pupil from the state. None of the ten received less than $7,000 per student from the state with six of the remaining districts getting $8,000 to $9,400.

 

By contrast, the top ten ranked districts (Unionville–Chadds Ford, South Fayette, Rose Tree, Lower Merion, Radnor, Tredyffrin East Town, Garnet Valley, Lower Moreland, Mars, and Mt. Lebanon) had average revenue of $17,767 per student—excluding Lower Merion where local funding is so high that it distorts the total revenue of the group. Interestingly, the nine districts received an average of only $2,935 per student from the state, raised $14,603 from local taxpayers, and got $169 from Federal sources and $62 from other.  Lower Merion raised $24,019 per student from local taxpayers and stands as the premier example of funding inequity for those who push the inequitable school funding issue. They might want to ask the teachers in Lower Merion if they would like to see that $24,000 number cut sharply and along with it teacher compensation.

 

In short, the weakest performing districts received 3.6 times ($10,562/$2,935) more per student funding from state aid than the highest ranked districts.  Meanwhile, the lowest ranked districts received nine times more in Federal money per student than the top ranked districts.  Someone needs to explain how districts like Wilkinsburg, with its $23,437 per pupil revenue, can have the second worst academic performance in the state—and more generally why so many districts with huge amounts of revenue, with much of it from the state, are unable to deliver something approximating even a bare minimum level of academic proficiency. The key question we ought to be asking is: how likely is it that even more state dollars will turn the situation around in the high spending districts in the bottom tier of performers in light of the countless programs that have been tried and found to be ineffective over the decades?  Maybe something new and dramatic such as vouchers would be a better plan. But that is unlikely as long as funding can be kept in the forefront of needed policy changes by education lobbyists as being the critical issue.

 

Here is another problem for the funding reformers to deal with. The ability of well-off districts such as Lower Merion and others to raise easily vast amounts of money for education creates a distortion in the school funding picture compared to the funding levels in most districts. Does the Legislature plan to tell these rich districts that they will not be permitted to raise so much money for education? Unless that happens the argument that Pennsylvania is not providing enough state funding will never go away.

 

What we know from the facts as opposed to rhetoric is that the state’s taxpayers are spending enormous sums of money on failing schools that are not getting better, while very good schools are raising the lion’s share of their funds locally.

 

Tinkering with the funding formula will not solve what ails Pennsylvania education.

Philadelphia, Too

Our Brief this week covered the efforts of consultants working with the Pittsburgh Public Schools who laid out per-pupil spending comparisons for Pittsburgh and a peer group of similar districts in Pennsylvania. We noted Allentown, Reading, Scranton, Erie, Hazelton, and Lancaster as being in that comparison group but failed to note that the state’s largest district, Philadelphia, was also in that group.

Based on the consultants’ data, Philadelphia spent about $6,000 less per-pupil than Pittsburgh before ($20,477 to $14,132) and after ($18,371 to $12,988) after they came up with an adjusted amount.

Imagine that: if Pittsburgh was to spend at the per-pupil level of Philadelphia, its budget would be more than $100 million less than at present. If Philadelphia-which is facing a $300 million shortfall and has plans for new taxes, higher taxes, and requests for state money-its budget would be more than $4 billion rather than the $2 billion it is today.

Are Consultants Finally Seeing the Light?

In early 2013, the Pittsburgh Public Schools announced it was going to use a $1.2 million foundation grant to hire consultants who would help steer the District through a "large scale visioning process" leading to a strategic plan to be delivered to the Commonwealth by 2014. Some of the work completed by the consultants was reported in a newspaper article and, lo and behold, the consultants found that the District spends more per-pupil than comparable districts in the state (the article did not identify the other districts, and the findings are not on the District website) by a margin of $6,800.

We have written much over the years about per-pupil spending in the Pittsburgh Public Schools so the findings should not be much of a surprise. Based on the statement of the District’s Superintendent ("the board has to have the facts on the table") does this mark a turning point in how blunt consultants working with the District will be?

Consider that in 2005 an audit found that, when examined against various school districts in the northeast and Midwest U.S. consultant data revealed the Pittsburgh Public Schools spent 20-45% more per pupil and spent less than half of their budget on administration and instruction (meaning they spent money on other expenditures) and yet could only recommend closing schools (something that was being planned on at the time) and obtaining savings that would have amounted to less than 5% of the budget. Much was left unanswered.

A year later the Council of Great City Schools came to the Steel City and presented its own set of overly general recommendations and they too left out the critical measurement of per-pupil spending when looking at districts from Chicago to Boston to Orlando. The resulting 59% gap between Pittsburgh and the other cities would have led a consultant to recommend steep expenditure reductions until the gap was closed.

But here we are in 2013 with a new set of consultants still finding a gap in per-pupil spending and there is still a gap in time before recommendations will be delivered and then, possibly, implemented. The District has said it would like to "…cut that [$6,800] gap by $2,000 a student" (the consultants’ adjusted per-pupil amount for Pittsburgh was $18,400 for 2011-12) but based on the 2013 budget ($521.8 million) and the enrollment posted on the District’s fact page (26.4k) the resulting per-pupil amount is closer to $19,718. A decrease of $2,000 per pupil means the budget target would have to be $448 million (if enrollment holds steady) or enrollment needs to grow to 30,000 if the budget stays flat to arrive at per-pupil spending closer to $17,000. And then what? Does the District want to drive spending down past that or make it a one year goal to serve as a baseline for future increases?

Pittsburgh School Board Election

In the school board election there have been many of the same old, same old nostrums offered up by the candidates. We need more money, let’s go after the non-profits. This in a school district that spends well over $20,000 per student and has little to show for it in terms of academics. This in a school district with a "Promise program" that offers scholarship money to virtually everyone who graduates. Yet school enrollment keeps falling and preparation for college languishes at abysmal levels. If money were the answer, Pittsburgh schools would be among the best.

There was one comment from a candidate that has a lot of potential. The candidate suggests changing union contacts to remove the overweening influence of seniority on personnel decisions and presumably on pay-although that was not explicitly stated.

There is little question that for too long teachers and the so called educrats who have been in charge have neglected the wellbeing of students, their parents and taxpayers in favor of political correctness, liberal ideologies and self- preservation of the employees and bureaucrats. The citizens of Pittsburgh and the taxpayers from across Pennsylvania who cover about half the cost of the school system deserve better.

Is State Ready to Shutter District?

A handful of years since the voluntary merger of two Beaver County school districts lowered Pennsylvania’s school district count from 501 to 500, the state appears poised to use its power to close down the Duquesne School District and bring the count to 499.

All that is left of the District is an elementary school-middle and high school students have been attending neighboring districts. We documented the academic and financial condition of the District in late 2011 and showed that proficiency was not getting better in upper grades and had fallen in lower grades. Spending per student approached $20,000, most of it coming from Federal and state sources. That piece was predicated on work done by the Institute in 2003.

Last year the District came under a new law, Act 141, which functions as a way to resuscitate distressed schools, much like Act 47. The recovery officer for the District (Duquesne operated under a control board for much of its recent history) made it known that the economics of keeping an elementary school open won’t work, nor would a charter school, so it looks like either a voluntary or mandatory transfer of elementary students.

At the conclusion of that 2011 Brief we offered the following: "one would hope the board, the administration, and the staff would care enough about their obligation to the kids and taxpayers to support drastic remedial steps, including closing the school". Here we are now, though the push to close the school is not coming from any of those parties

Pittsburgh’s Second Bill of Rights Proclamation

Never has so much inanity, ignorance and denial of reality been on display as the Pittsburgh City Council’s proclamation calling for the Federal government to enact a second Bill of Rights to protect the middle class. The proclamation would have the new Bill of Rights include a living wage, education rights and full participation in the electoral process.

How fascinating that Pittsburgh’s City Council would be the promoters of a Bill of Rights which have in effect already been implemented in the City. Are they not happy with Pittsburgh’s results? Has the City’s living wage bill not worked to grow the middle class’ income? Apparently not. Has spending over $20,000 per pupil, having a Promise scholarship program that guarantees money for Pittsburgh school graduates and adopting every politically correct education strategy and gimmick coming down the pike improved education in City schools? Absolutely not. What new educational rights could possibly do more than is already being done? And how likely are they to achieve better results than are already occurring? History says they will be a counterproductive waste of time.

The nation has long since had a minimum wage and a labor policy that gives great power to unions. Look at the industries the unions have decimated through their demands. The nation and the state have had prevailing wage laws for decades. Pennsylvania has labor laws that give public sector unions enormous bargaining advantages over the elected officials representing the taxpayers. And given the incestuous, mutual back scratching relationship between elected officials and public sector unions taxpayers end up getting short shrift. Those laws enrich the government employees but have pushed 26 municipalities in the state into distressed status, including Pittsburgh.

Which of these policies, along with business strangling environmental policies, have been helpful in promoting private sector activity and creating sustainable high paying jobs? Look at the deep blue cities all around the country such as Philadelphia, Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, San Bernardino, Scranton, and Harrisburg. Where is the evidence that all the "progressive" programs in those cities have protected the middle class?

The unwillingness to recognize the damage being done to our economy and financial system by progressive programs is to be in complete denial. Model cities ring a bell? How did the Civic Arena work out for the Hill District? Have progressive education policies improved education? Look at academic achievement in Chicago, Atlanta and many other cities across the country where the lack of discipline and kowtowing to teacher unions have held sway for years.

Finally, how can a City that has been totally under the control of one party for 80 years in a country that has been under the control of the same party for much of the same time and is in a country which has a voting rights act have concerns about electoral participation? Where has their party been? The same party that has a very checkered history when it comes to electoral malfeasance. Philly Black Panthers ring a bell anyone? ACORN shenanigans? Then there is the candidate for Congress in Maryland who has had to drop out for voting in both Florida and Maryland in the same election season. Does full participation in the electoral process include being able to cheat?

Rights cannot specify outcomes as the Council apparently believe they can. Rights should ensure freedom to work, start a business or any other pursuit of happiness an individual chooses with minimum of interference and then only to protect the same rights of other people. Rights should ensure the sanctity of life, the ability to own and dispose of private property and the right of free speech, the freedom of the press and religion. In fact, the founding documents including the Bill of Rights and other amendments already do these things as long as politicians and judges do not subvert them. And therein lies the rub for the Council’s proclamation. They are unhappy with the tried and true way the country has guaranteed our rights and produced the greatest prosperity the world has ever seen.

But progressives are never happy. And they have enacted idiotic laws such as those that led to the subprime mortgage debacle that nearly destroyed our financial system. They have worked to choke off the country’s ability to exploit its own resources and to hamstring the ability of entrepreneurs to build and grow businesses. The drafting of the proclamation demonstrates the inability of progressives to be open minded enough to question whether or not all they have done before is doing what they promised? Or will they ever they recognize the unintended consequences of their policies and beliefs? They would choke the goose that lays the golden eggs and expect the goose to keep producing the eggs.

Pittsburgh School Woes Continue

Layoffs, budget problems, dropping enrollment and now a decline in achievement scores. It seems Pittsburgh City schools cannot catch a break. Even with expenditures above $20,000 per pupil and a scholarship program that promises every graduate with a minimal grade average thousands of dollars to attend college, the District simply cannot move the dial on 11th grade achievement as measured by SAT scores or PSSA results. Hence the graduation rate is stuck and the numbers of school age children in the City continues its decades long slide.

Now comes news that in the 2011-2012 school year, District PSSA scores fell with only 8th graders making any progress. And as we have written about before, there is something peculiar about 8th grade testing, especially in math.

As a result of the drop in PSSA scores and failure to improve graduation rates, Pittsburgh schools failed to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress criteria as set out in the No Child Left Behind program with whatever stigma that implies. The big problem for Pittsburgh schools is the inability to move the scores for 11th graders at most of the City’s schools. The improvement at lower grades is nice but unavailing if 11th graders are unable to perform at anything like expected levels. No wonder the exodus of high school age children is so great.