7 Little Known Facts On Pennsylvania Public School Spending

This post carries research from the Commonwealth Foundation, which used to run Free to Teach. Free to Teach is now a project of Americans For Fair Treatment.

1. State spending on public education is at the highest level ever.

State taxpayers contributed $9.7 billion to school districts in 2013-14, an all-time high. In addition, total funding (which includes local funds from property taxes, state and federal funding) exceeds $15,000 per student.

2. The pension crisis is putting the squeeze on school districts.

Pennsylvania’s pension crisis places immense pressure on local school districts. As pension costs continue to balloon, dollars that would otherwise be spent on students, teachers, and programs are redirected out of the classroom. The Public School Employees Retirement System faces unfunded liabilities in excess of $30 billion—and contributions from local school districts will continue to rise in coming years.

3. School districts have been able to increase their reserve funds, despite claims of major shortfalls.

Yes, that’s right: While some school districts are threatening to raise taxes and cut staff positions, they’re simultaneously holding a combined $4.1 billion in reserve funds. These dollars are stored away in what amounts to a “rainy day fund” instead of being used efficiently within the classroom.

4. The “cuts” in the 2011-12 budget for education came entirely from temporary federal stimulus funds that expired.

The money came from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which included both direct funding to school districts and money to preserve jobs. When the federal funds expired, Gov. Corbett and state lawmakers increased public education funding from state funds to replace some of that amount. Gov. Ed Rendell, in contrast, did the opposite, using federal dollars to increase funding for schools while cutting the funding from state tax dollars.

5. Teachers’ unions and others are using selective numbers to show a cut in school funding.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) cites only the parts of state aid to public schools that have gone down—not the line items that have increased.

For example, when the PSEA says “Basic Education” funding has gone down, it’s counting the little over half of regular education funding that is distributed via a formula to school districts. But the figure excludes items such as special education, early childhood education and nutrition programs.

6. Stimulus funds began affecting education funding a year earlier than the PSEA and some lawmakers claim.

The PSEA and some lawmakers designate Fiscal Year 2008-09 as the “pre-stimulus” starting point, to show how previous levels of education funding were higher than they are today. But federal stimulus funds were part of state spending in that year, even if they weren’t earmarked for education.

While the extra money mostly went towards welfare programs, it allowed Gov. Ed Rendell to cut Medicaid spending from state tax dollars and use those funds to public education instead. He was thus able to increase education spending despite a budget deficit—and it looked like education funding had increased without temporary federal help.

7. Everyone knew the stimulus funds were temporary.

The question is whether school districts should have budgeted for the lapse, or whether Gov. Tom Corbett and lawmakers should have dramatically increased taxes on Pennsylvanians to replace the stimulus.

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania already has the 10th-highest local and state tax burden in the country. And we’re already in a severe financial crunch, thanks to the projected shortfall, and bills for pension and government workers coming due.

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