The Overlooked Side Of Education Spending

Elizabeth Stelle
Johnstown Tribune-Democrat

Since Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget proposal, those who profit from Pennsylvania’s $26 billion-a-year public school system have been gnashing teeth over what they claim is an “underfunding” of the public schools.

This misinformation campaign builds on the faulty premises that education spending in Pennsylvania has been cut to the bone and more money will improve student learning.

Unfortunately, this narrative distorts reality and omits key facts. As the late Paul Harvey would say, it is time you know the rest of the story.

Perhaps the best known education spending canard is more dollars will produce more scholars. Yet since 1995, when Pennsylvania doubled taxpayer spending on K-12 education from $13 billion to more than $26 billion, SAT scores have been flat and state results on the U.S. Department of Education’s Nation’s Report Card haven’t improved much since 2002.

Today, Pennsylvania school districts spend more than $14,000 per student — with some as high as $25,000 — and studies show absolutely no connection between district spending and student achievement. Moreover, the achievement gap in some of our most failing and violent public schools continues to widen, such as the Harrisburg School District, where taxpayers invested more than $18,000 per pupil but 9 out of 10 students couldn’t reach proficiency in math.

Because these facts get in the way, the public school industry resorts to rickety rhetoric, citing “draconian funding cuts” over the past two years. But the truth is, these cuts occurred with the end of the federal stimulus, which was always intended to be temporary aid.

Excluding federal funds, Corbett’s proposed budget actually represents a 2 percent increase in spending on K-12 education since fiscal year 2007-08, the year before the stimulus.

Public school advocates tirelessly demand more money for the classroom, but fail to support cost-saving prevailing wage law reform that would end the debilitating mandate that inflates school (and all government) construction costs by 10 to 20 percent. Whether it is willful neglect of the facts or myopic math, proponents of more spending refuse to recognize that prevailing wage mandates cost Pennsylvania taxpayers $1 billion to $2 billion a year, increasing costs for school districts.

Another fact many spending advocates conveniently ignore is that student enrollment since 2000 has decreased by 35,510, but the number of staff employed by public schools increased by 35,821. This begs an important question: Would anyone invest in an endeavor that doubles its spending and significantly increases its staff to serve a shrinking customer base, all while making a product that isn’t improving?

Ultimately, these increases were enabled by failing to fully fund pensions for public school teachers. But like family budgets, the bill is now coming due, such as at Central Dauphin School District, where officials announced the cut of more than 70 teaching jobs and a tax increase of more than 3 percent just to make ends meet.

But they are not alone as total taxpayer contributions for school and state worker pensions will increase from $1.7 billion in 2011-12 to more than $6.1 billion in 2016-17 — a 257 percent increase.

Next school year, the average homeowner will pay an additional $370 just for increases in required pension contributions.

Unfortunately, those with perpetual palms up are repeating the popular narrative that simply blames state lawmakers. This old yarn ignores how the Pennsylvania State Education Association was complicit in the crisis.

The PSEA lobbied not only for increases in pension benefits, but also for the 2003 and 2010 legislation to delay pension payments.

Finally, many discussions on education spending ignore the most exciting part of the story: The great success of school choice.

School choice programs such as charter schools, cyber charter schools and scholarships offered through business tax credits give Pennsylvania’s children quality educations with fewer tax dollars.

Schools of choice — private, charter and home school — save taxpayers $4.3 billion annually.

Moreover, school choice has shown to improve student learning, including higher graduation rates. Since graduating high school is tied to long-term success in life, improving performance via school choice will also save taxpayers in future welfare and corrections spending.

As parents and taxpayers, Pennsylvanians should hear all the facts on education spending. The next time education unions and other special interests bully and demand more money “for the kids,” remember what they aren’t telling you — the rest of the story.

Elizabeth Stelle is a policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Harrisburg.

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