Did Funding Decline Cause Drop in Achievement Scores?

The recent release of 2011-2012 PSSA test results showed a decline in the statewide percentages of student scoring at the proficient or advanced level (-1.4 percent in math and -1.6 percent in reading). In a press release the State Secretary of Education noted the scoring decline was attributable to tightened security in the wake of an investigation of some adults who might have made changes to student answer sheets in previous years.  Not unexpectedly, educational system apologists blamed the decline in PSSA scores on a reduction in educational spending.


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Appeals for School Spending

Students of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, education advocates, and parents of children in the District are in Harrisburg today to petition for more money for public education. At least one student stated "we need to prioritize the budget and make education the No. 1 thing like it was a long time ago".

Without any reference to when "a long time ago" was exactly, let’s look at it from the perspective of a high school senior who will graduate in June of 2013, just about when the 2012-13 fiscal year will be wrapping up. That senior would have been in kindergarten in the 2001-02 fiscal year. Here’s how the spending of $1 in general fund money compares now and then:

Fiscal Year


All Other Functions


42.3 cents

57.7 cents


40.5 cents

59.5 cents

The other functions include health and human services, protection of people and property, direction of services, economic development, and other.

Education has been the top dog in state spending likely for much longer than the public school enrollment for the soon to be graduating senior. Keep in mind that Federal and local dollars are in the mix and that, for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, if there is an issue about in-class resources it should be noted that the last decade has seen tremendous growth in personnel and costs associated with folks who won’t step foot in a classroom and have a direct influence on the student.

Few Beat Pittsburgh on School Spending

New research from the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) looks at school spending and the share attributed to actual instruction on a per-pupil basis. Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the analysis examines how the amount spent on actual instruction decreases when items like capital spending are added in.

The NCES data shows spending for the 100 largest school districts in the country (according to enrollment) and their per-pupil spending based on their most recent budget. Pittsburgh is not one of the top 100, but based on their 2011 budget (which includes instruction, instructional support, support, debt, other, non-instructional, and facilities) the total comes to $540.9 million. With 27,132 students, the per-pupil expenditure works out to $19,935.

Not many districts in the top 100 list compiled by NCES top that amount. Boston ($21,878) does; New York ($19,260) and DC ($18,652) are in the neighborhood; cross-state Philadelphia ($16,389) is 20% lower.

How about just when instruction is counted? With $285 million of the $540.9 million budget devoted to "instruction" the per-student expense in Pittsburgh is $10,677. Only two districts, the aforementioned Boston ($11,737) and New York ($13,529) bested the Steel City.

Sure, with more than 14,000 school districts in the U.S. there are likely to be examples out there where spending exceeds Pittsburgh’s on total and on instruction. But in this cohort of districts that is not the case.

Act 1: A Rewrite?

One of the items that came out of the Governor’s budget presentation on Tuesday was a possible change to Act 1 of 2006, the law that is aimed at providing school property tax relief through gaming money, tax shifts, and, if applicable, taxpayer referenda on tax increases that exceed a predetermined index. Many have opined that state level cuts to education will simply force tax increase at the school district level: one representative stated "it’s a no-state-tax budget, but it will not be a no tax budget at the end of the day for most Pennsylvanians. School taxes will have to go up".

To stave off what has been the norm for school districts in the past few years under Act 1-design a budget and, if a tax increase is included, either increase it to a level just under the index or seek one or more of the ten exceptions available under Act 1 from either the PA Department of Education or the courts-there might be a proposal to tighten the Act 1 requirements. Voters have had little, if any, opportunity to vote a school tax increase up or down on a ballot. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association does not have any hard data, but officials there counted about 12 referendums, none of which were successful. There were 2 approvals on 5 ballot questions on school construction. Contrast that with PDE data that shows just for FY2010-11 133 districts "sought and were granted approval" for referendum exceptions under Act 1.

Some officials fear that voters will choke off funding to schools if they get to vote on tax increases without exceptions. Another representative was quoted as saying "we have to make sure our school districts run as efficiently as possible, but I’ve got great concerns about placing those types of issues on the ballot". Why? Could it be because school officials would have to make a case for justifying their tax increase without getting a pass?

Just because there is referendum power does not mean that an increase will be automatically rejected. The Education Commission on the States showed that in 2008 eleven states put thirteen statewide education funding referenda questions on the ballot: seven passed, six failed. Nearby states have various forms of taxpayer say over tax increases. If education advocates believe in their cause and feel that there can never be too much invested in teachers, facilities, classrooms, and programs, why not make the case to the voters in Pennsylvania’s districts?

Building a Great Nation without Public Pre-School

It never ceases to amaze how many supposedly intelligent people continually complain about the lack of adequate pre-kindergarten education. Just recently a local physician weighed in with such a pronouncement in an opinion column in the Post-Gazette. What is wrong with the argument? Consider this. How did the U.S. become the world’s foremost economy and military power during a period when very few people went to public pre-school-there weren’t any such schools-and many citizens never went to kindergarten?

Children who are raised in a loving, caring environment where they are encouraged at home to learn as they grow do not need pre-school. It is all well and good if parents want to send their children to private or church run pre-schools but those schools are certainly neither necessary nor sufficient for intellectual or emotional development.

Then too, what we know to be an incontrovertible fact is that the longer kids are in most urban public schools, including Pittsburgh, the worse their academic and intellectual development becomes. They tend to do relatively well in first through third, maybe okay through fifth grade, then their development slows dramatically. If they start out in first grade doing reasonably well with some hope they can move along satisfactorily and then stumble as they get older, obviously it is not the presence or absence of pre-school that is important. It is the failed school system and a lack of parental guidance and discipline that carries over into the schools that creates the problem.

If the good doctor wants to see kids get a better education, then he should support vouchers that would enable students to escape the failed public schools. Whining about the lack of spending on public pre-schools is simply an effort to excuse the school system for its shortcomings by claiming things would be better if pre-schools were funded and required for all three and four year olds. In some places that is known as cynical foolishness.

Honored Contracts, Abused Taxpayers

School districts across Pennsylvania are struggling to raise the revenue necessary to cover expenses and it promises to get even worse as the recession lingers. Many are hoping their teacher unions will agree to make contract concessions to cut expenses and stave off tax increases that will be ruinous in the current economic environment.

The response of James Testerman, president of the PSEA? Quoted in a Tribune Review article he said; "We expect contracts that are in place to be honored." How contemptuous of the plight of taxpayers. Testerman knows full well that school districts cannot furlough teachers unless there is a substantial drop in enrollment and even then it is difficult. So, while his union has the luxury of facing no layoffs, he can insist also that the pay or benefits be raised as the current contract provides.

Is there any wonder Pennsylvania is one of the slowest growing states in the nation? The attitude of the teacher unions and other public sector unions is completely out of touch with economic reality. They have the political clout to insulate themselves from market forces private sector employees must take into account.

But beyond the arrogance that comes from their control over the Legislature from whence their power derives, the attitude of the teacher union president is one of breathtaking coldness toward the public and taxpayers. The folks who pay their salaries are apparently viewed as adversaries for whom no respect is allowed.

And students must learn from these union teachers? What messages honor and decency are they receiving?