Education

Pa. Budget: Failing to Invest in a Stronger State Economy

By Chris Lilienthal, Third and State

Despite ending the 2011-12 fiscal year with a $649 million fund balance, Pennsylvania fails to make the investments essential to building a strong economy or to reverse a recent trend where job growth in the commonwealth has lagged behind other states.

So concludes the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center analysis of the enacted 2012-13 state budget, which was released Friday.

In the final budget, the General Assembly restores some of the cuts proposed by Governor Tom Corbett, while leaving intact a 10% cut to human services and deep cuts to public schools and higher education made in 2011. The budget continues to shift costs to local governments and taxpayers, while adding new tax breaks for businesses.

The spending plan, at $27.656 billion, is $517 million more than the Governor’s February proposal but remains below budgeted 2008-09 levels, despite four years of recession-driven increases in demand for services. The largest cut in this budget comes from the elimination of the General Assistance Program, which provides a temporary monthly benefit to 68,887 Pennsylvanians who are sick, disabled or escaping an abuser. It ends next month

Cuts to education enacted last year, meanwhile, have diminished the quality of instruction in our poorest school districts and resulted in the loss of 14,000 jobs in 2011.

PA Starts New Fiscal Year with $400 Million in the Bank

By Michael Wood, Third and State

After a less than stellar May, General Fund tax collections bounced back strongly in June — exceeding estimate by $170 million, or 6.5%. This narrowed the 2011-12 revenue shortfall to $163 million, or less than 1% of total estimated collections for the year.

As a result, the state ended the year in a much better fiscal situation than projected back in February, when Governor Tom Corbett released his budget plan. Counting the dollars the state had in the bank, Pennsylvania actually started the fiscal year with a $400 million fund balance.

The recently enacted budget acknowledged this but only to a point. The Legislature increased General Fund spending in 2012-13 by $655 million from the Governor’s  proposal — restoring funding in a number of important areas: higher education, accountability block grants, and half of the 20% cut proposed for county services included in the now-rejected Human Services Development Block Grant. Lawmakers also found funding for another round of business tax breaks.

However, June collections indicate more could have been done — for General Assistance recipients, environmental programs, and child care. Lawmakers also passed on setting aside any of the additional revenue in the Rainy Day Fund.

Click here for the Tale of the Tape.

The revenue surplus in June was led by corporate tax collections — coming in $180 million higher than the monthly target, or 38%. After falling short of estimates for seven of the first eight months of the fiscal year, corporate taxes ended June with a small surplus of $39 million, or 0.8%.

Piecing Together the PA Budget Framework

By Chris Lilienthal, Third and State

Some details emerged Thursday about the state budget framework unveiled midweek by Governor Tom Corbett and legislative leaders, but questions still remain. More details may be available later today when budget spreadsheets are released.

Funding for county human services is one area that appears to be in flux, as some House Republicans continue to voice concerns about a plan to block grant and cut that funding. 

A number of GOP House lawmakers want to add more dollars for the mental health and mental disability programs in that mix, said [Rep. Mario] Scavello.

A Senate-approved bill restores half of the $168 million spending cut for the human services programs initially proposed by Mr. Corbett. House members would like to restore even more money but have to balance that with cuts elsewhere, he added.

Although the statewide association representing county commissioners recently agreed to a two-year phase-in for the block grant, Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-18, Bensalem, chairman of the House Human Services Committee, said he's trying to stop the block grant altogether and substitute a pilot program for several counties instead ...

The seven programs considered for a block grant include community mental health and mental disability services, the human services development fund, homeless assistance, child welfare grants, the Behavorial Health Services Initiative and Act 152 drug and alcohol treatment programs.

The Myths Behind Governor Corbett's PA Budget Myths

By Sharon Ward, Third and State

Governor Tom Corbett's May 21 newsletter offered up responses to five "myths" the administration claims are circulating about his proposed budget for next year. The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center examined these myths and the myths behind the myths to give you a clear picture about what is fact and what is fiction in Harrisburg.

Governor's Myth #1: Pennsylvania spends more money building prisons than building schools. 

We’re not sure where this one came from, but we will give it a whirl.

Fact: The Corbett administration’s budget includes a moratorium on new school construction projections, and NO FUNDING for school district projects in the pipeline.

Fact: If the Governor’s proposed plan for higher education is adopted, Pennsylvania will spend twice as much on prisons as it does on colleges. In 2009-10, the state's corrections budget was $1.8 billion and college funding was $1.5 billion. If the Governor had his way, Pennsylvania would spend $1.9 billion on corrections and $980 million on colleges in 2012-13.  

Fact: It costs the state much more to house prisoners than it does to educate a child. In 2011-12, Pennsylvania will house 49,000 inmates at a cost of $35,188 per inmate and spend $9.3 billion to educate 1.8 million students at a cost in state dollars of $5,305 per child.

Fact: It is better to build schools than to build prisons. 

Governor's Myth #2: The reductions in higher education funding will cause universities to raise tuition.  

Educational Tax Credits Are Often a Bait-and-Switch

By Stephen Herzenberg, Third and State

A story in Monday's New York Times explores the use of state tax credit programs to pay for "scholarships" for students who attend private schools. The story suggests that many of the students who receive such scholarships already attend private school and are not low-income.

To the extent that this is true, the political marketing of these programs as alternatives (for a select few students) to public schools in distressed communities is a "bait and switch." Educational tax credits actually siphon taxpayer dollars to subsidize private schools, reducing state revenues available for public schools.

Is this how the scholarships to attend private schools work under Pennsylvania's Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program?

Probably: there is no prohibition on EITC scholarships going to students already attending private schools; middle-class families are eligible to receive scholarships (the income limit for a family of four is $84,000); and there is no evidence that even this income limit is enforced. In fact, Pennsylvania's Act 46 of 2005 prohibits the state from requesting from scholarship organizations any information other than the number and amount of scholarships that they give out. I guess we're just supposed to trust the scholarship organizations to self-enforce the income limit.

Pennsylvania Hunger Games Diet: Cash for Corporations, Cuts for Kids

By Mark Price, Third and State

On Tuesday Marty Moss-Coane, the host of WHYY's Radio Times, moderated a question-and-answer session with Governor Tom Corbett at an event sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. The Governor ran wild with analogies.

Corbett repeated a folksy analogy to the business suit-and-tie audience, saying that state revenue amounted to an eight-inch pizza pie before the 2008 financial crisis. Now, he said, it’s a six-inch pie “but with the same mouths to feed.”

Moss-Coane noted near the end of the hour-long conversation that Corbett could hear demonstrators beating drums and chanting slogans outside. What would he say to them, she asked.

“I understand that you’re upset because we’ve had to put the state on a diet, for want of a better description,” Corbett said. “I haven’t met anybody who likes to go on diets. It is not easy. It is not what we want to do.”

Let the Games Begin: PA Senate Announces Details of Budget Proposal

By Sharon Ward, Third and State

Action on the state budget began in earnest Monday with state Senator Jake Corman, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, releasing important details on the Senate budget plan that will be advanced this week.

The proposal would increase Governor Tom Corbett's budget proposal by $500 million, with total spending rising from $27.15 billion to $27.65 billion for 2012-13. The Senate plan rejects $191 million in fund transfers and new revenue and proposes new spending cuts of $165 million. Those spending reductions were not yet detailed.

According to a Capitolwire.com report (subscription required), the Senate budget plan:

Set off without a Paddle: Unpacking the School District’s Disaster Capitalism

Photo by Louie U-A

Last night, a few more details (and scare tactics) from the School District’s radical plan for Philadelphia schools were released. If you didn’t believe that we were in the throes of disaster capitalism, you should now. Watch how the game is played:

The Philadelphia School District's financial situation is so dire that without a $94 million cash infusion from a proposed city property-reassessment plan, schools might not be able to open in the fall, leaders said Tuesday night.

At a district budget hearing, chief recovery officer Thomas Knudsen stressed that the district might fall off "the cliff on which we now stand so precariously" if swift action is not taken.

The district's money problems, coupled with a lack of academic progress and safety issues, have prompted Knudsen to propose a total overhaul of how schools are organized and run. More students would be shifted to charter schools, and the central office would be shrunk, with district schools managed by staff or outside organizations who bid to run them.

See the connections they make? We have a massive budget hole! Ergo, we need a total overhaul of schools!

There. Is. So. Much. Wrong. With. This. Shit. Where to start?

Yes, the School District has a massive budget hole. Let’s all acknowledge that reality, while also remembering that it seems pointless to totally trust the always shifting numbers that come from a School District that still employs the same financial wizards as during the reign of Arlene Ackerman.

The School District will attempt to fill this massive, mostly state-caused, budget hole through the following ways:

  • Slashing wages and benefits from teachers, cafeteria workers and janitors.
  • Forcing charter schools to take seven percent less money, per child.
  • Scaring City Council into coughing up 94 million dollars more.
  • And, in the end, borrowing. A lot. (They will do this by issuing bonds.)

All told, the ‘true’ deficit that they are making up with the above factors is hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Where does the restructuring of the School District, the closing of 40 schools and moving tens of thousands of kids to charter schools, fit into all of this? Surely, this radical change in the district is also a huge part of the savings?

Nope. Not really. Despite needing to plug this massive, hundreds of millions of dollars big hole, this radical reorganization will save something like 33 million dollars (according to the School District’s questionable numbers). Again, compared to all the rest, borrowing included, which stretch well into the hundreds of millions of dollars, these savings— if they are true— are almost a pittance.

As a parent put it eloquently last night:

Parent Rebecca Poyourow said the district was resorting to "crazy-making" rhetoric and unfairly connecting the reorganization plan with the budget.

"It is at best foolish - and at worst devious - for you to choose this moment of fiscal crisis to foist a poorly conceived and primarily ideological reorganization scheme on Philadelphia schools," Poyourow said. "This move smacks of manipulation."

Again, and again, and again, this needs to be stated: The massive overhaul of our schools and the massive budget deficit are not connected.

So, why are the Mayor and Knudsen connecting these two things?

I can think of at least two possible conclusions. First, the radical changes are simply a long-standing ideological push, led by people who believe markets should solve the puzzle that is urban education. (In this game, the Mayor is anywhere from the person behind the scenes, pushing this along, or, alternatively, someone who is also being taken for a ride.) Maybe it really is that simple.

Or second, maybe Knudsen and Nutter are overseeing a bankrupt district, and want to ‘look good’ for Wall Street. They know they need to borrow money to keep this crippled mess hobbling along, so they are going with what they think will appeal to creditors.

Neither, of course, has anything to do with how we properly educate our children. But, this is the shock doctrine, where logic and reason are but constructs to be shouted down.

So, please, ignore the screaming threats of nuclear Armageddon that Mayor Nutter and Knudsen are making on your porch. Because while they are doing so, your television, your dining room set, and your youngest child are all being carried out the back door.

School Destruction Video: "If we fail, we will have to console more families who have lost their children to crime and despair."

Last night, as reported by the Notebook, the Inquirer and others, I attended the first (I think) of what will be many mass meetings about the Nutter/Knudsen plan to radically alter public education in the city.

From the Notebook:

Several hundred people gathered at historic Mother Bethel AME Church on Lombard Street Sunday night to decry plans put forward by District staff and consultants to close dozens of schools, expand charters, and reorganize the School District into “achievement networks” primarily run by private entities.

A succession of preachers roused the gathering and put public officials on notice that their voices would be heard before any such radical restructuring would be allowed to take place.

“This system is being designed to fail, and fail our children,” said the Rev. Kevin Johnson of Bright Hope Baptist Church.

The meeting was organized by POWER Philadelphia, a faith-based organizing group doing work around several issues including education. Many of the speakers invoked the language of civil rights and called the plan the new Jim Crow, destined to consign Black and Latino children to permanent second-class educations.

“The most important civil rights issue of our time, that is public education,” said Johnson.

We will have plenty on the substance of this plan, but, for now, watch two preachers lead the crowd at Mother Bethel (video from Techbook Online). The first, Dr. Kevin Johnson, leads one of the more historic churches in our city, Bright Hope Baptist Church.

The second speaker is not, in fact, ordained, but, she is our preacher, and she should look pretty familiar:

Well said.

Should a Starving Child Live Within his Means? What about a Starving School District?

Would the Daily News tell a starving child to live within his means? Would the Mayor say that a child who was facing benefit cuts in already measly food stamps to ‘grow up,’ face reality, and get used to a regular dose of rice, beans, and malnutrition?

Of course not. In fact, in the face of growing attacks on nutrition assistance, politicians across the city are taking on the “Food Stamp Challenge.” The premise of the challenge is to illustrate just how difficult it is for a poor person to feed themselves on $35 a week, and how impossible it would be to function with even less.

Allotted just $35 for a week of food, participants will learn firsthand the anxiety-driven calculus of finding nutrition with nearly no money.

"The benefit is being cut in draconian ways, and we're hoping to make people aware of how limiting the benefit already is," said Carey Morgan, executive director of the Coalition.

....

Nationwide, about $14 billion will be taken out of the food-stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). That translates into up to $15 a month being excised from an individual's monthly benefits. The average monthly benefit per person in Pennsylvania is $113. In New Jersey, it's around $133.

....

[Congressman Bob] Brady said it was "ludicrous" for people to have to eat on $35 a week, adding, "I'll see what I can get for that money. You can buy a lot of rice, but it's not the healthiest thing to eat. It's pretty difficult."

It is extremely hard to live with little money for food. It is commonsense then, that cutting those benefits, and simply stating that poor people should adjust, is a little inhumane. What if adjusting, while still being able to maintain reasonable nutrition, was simply impossible to do?

Spending Twice as Much on Prisons as on Universities

A blog post by Chris Lilienthal, originally published at Third and State.

It is no secret that Governor Tom Corbett has proposed deep cuts to higher education institutions in Pennsylvania for the second year in a row.

But just what do those cuts mean? Well, we have two charts at the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center's web site that speak louder than words when it comes to funding cuts for colleges and universities.

If enacted, the Governor's 2012-13 budget will result in a funding cut for higher education of one-third since the start of the recession.

Public Colleges Cuts by One Third Since Start of Recession

This budget will also mean that come 2013 Pennsylvania will be spending twice as much on prisons as on colleges and universities.

In 2013 PA Will Spend Twice as Much on Prison as on Colleges and Universities

Let the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story: Private School Bus Services in PA Cost More

A blog post by Stephen Herzenberg, originally published at Third and State.

The standard conservative narrative is that private delivery of services and goods trumps government delivery. In Harrisburg, for example, Governor Corbett’s Council on Privatization and Innovation often presents its goal as privatization, taking for granted that this will be more efficient and cost-effective.

In fact, the record on privatization shows that in many cases privatization fails to deliver promised savings and can undercut service quality. That’s part of why Cornell Professor Mildred Warner has found that local governments often bring work back in house.

The Governor's Math Requires Fewer Math Teachers

A blog post by Mark Price, originally published at Third and State.

PA Job Growth Slowed in 2011Pennsylvania’s 2011-12 General Fund budget made deep cuts to education and health care while leaving unspent $620 million from a revenue surplus last year and other unused funds.

We have estimated the failure to spend that revenue will by itself translate into the loss of 17,714 jobs (including private jobs lost due to the ripple effects of public job cuts) over the course of the 2011-12 fiscal year.

So it is no surprise that Pennsylvania's job growth slowed in 2011 compared to 2010 and when compared to most other states.

On Wednesday, Governor Tom Corbett resumed his business tour to pitch his 2012-13 budget, which offers another round of budget cuts for the coming fiscal year.

'Cutting Training for Jobs the Economy Needs Most'

A blog post by Michael Wood, originally published at Third and State.

When you have a moment, check out this New York Times article on the impact of state cuts to public higher education across the country — and the impact they are having on our economy. These types of short-sighted cuts, like the 20% reduction in higher education funding proposed by Governor Corbett this year, put us in a worse position today and down the road.

The article highlights some of the "efficiencies" we could see if the cuts keep coming:

As state funding has dwindled, public colleges have raised tuition and are now resorting to even more desperate measures — cutting training for jobs the economy needs most.

Technical, engineering and health care expertise are among the few skills in huge demand even in today’s lackluster job market. They are also, unfortunately, some of the most expensive subjects to teach.

Pennsylvania has a long history of shortchanging higher education funding, coming in 45th (as a share of personal income) or 46th (per capita) in the the amount of state support for higher education in FY 2011, according to annual Grapevine survey.

If we want a well-educated workforce to fill the jobs of tomorrow, we have to invest in educating them today.

What Works in Pennsylvania

The Campaign for What Works has a great video illustrating the interconnectedness of the investments our state makes in a variety of areas from early childhood education to public transportation to workforce training. These investments not only improve the quality of life of Pennsylvanians but create jobs and build a stronger economy.

As the campaign says on its home page: "Pennsylvania works when our state budget supports what works."

Take a minute to watch the video and pass it on.

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