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State budget cuts slice local education

Educators, community leaders testify to effects of education budget reductions.

The speakers came from different places, different jobs, different perspectives on the educational system, but the warning was universal—schools are suffering under nearly $930 million in state education funding cuts made this year, and the poorest schools are bearing the heaviest burdens.

A dozen school administrators, teachers, parents and representatives of nonprofit groups shared their perspectives at Friday's Pennsylvania State House Democratic Policy Committee hearings in Green Tree. 

State Reps. Matt Smith, Dan Deasy and , all D-Allegheny, co-chaired the event, which included Democratic state Reps. Robert Matzie, Joe Markosek, Chris Sainato, Dan Frankel, Paul Costa and Kevin Murphy.

Since 1974, when the state paid for 55 percent of educational costs, state support has decreased until it has reached its current all-time low of 36 percent of public education funding, one of the lowest rates in the nation. Local districts must make up the rest, usually from property taxes, despite the vast differences in property values and income in communities.

Because of how state funds had been distributed (with a higher percentage given to poorer school districts), this year's tax cuts have taken the largest toll on the poorest districts—the ones least able to withstand the loss.

Funding to more affluent school districts, such as , where there is a 14.9 percent Poverty Concentration, was cut by $79 per student, while cuts to the City of Pittsburgh with a Poverty Concentration of 70.5 percent, lost $930 per student. The average school district lost $411 per student.

William Hileman, vice president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, enumerated the city school district's funding losses.

“The current year's reduction in Basic Education Funding, the end of federal stimulus money, the deep cut in the state ABG (Accountability Block Grants), the elimination of the state Educational Assistance Program (EAP, tutoring), the elimination of the state charter school subsidy and the increase in charter school activity adds up to more than $30 million this year alone,” he said.

School districts are left with little or no financial recourse under the limitations of Act 1 of 2006 and Act 25 of 2011. Under these state mandates, any property tax increase above the rate of inflation must be approved by the local voters. Taxpayers in each district must be given the option to vote to decide whether they want a property tax increase to fund a particular program.

Both the decreased funding and the binding tax limits have left schools with a long list of unfunded state mandates.

“You might think we could raise these funds locally, but this is made almost impossible by the limitation on real estate revenue from Act 1 of 2006 and Act 25 of 2011," said Dr. Timothy Steinhauer, superintendent of Mt. Lebanon School District. "It is concerning to us that as the state reduces its funding to schools. It places additional restrictions on schools so we cannot find revenues locally to pay for mandated services.”

“This shift in the state tax burden does nothing to reduce the overall tax burden to our citizens,“ said Nancy Aloi Rose, acting superintendent of Bethel Park School District. “It widens the gap between the 'haves' and the 'have-not' school districts.”

Patrick Sable, chief financial officer for Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU) also advocated change.

“Act 1 really needs to be reviewed," he said. "Local school boards have proven to be good vanguards of tax money. Nobody wants to raise taxes.”

Channing Martin of the Women and Girls Foundation asked the representatives to take a holistic approach to the budget process and consider how education cuts can have long-term negative impact on other aspects of the budget, linking higher educational outcomes with more economic and job stability.

"It is foolhardy to consider cuts to education spending and pretend that these will not have a long-term impact on increasing incarceration rates and juvenile detention and security spending throughout the state long term," she said.

“We should also consider how support for preschool education and full-day kindergarten not only result in higher educational outcomes for children, but also result in more economic and job stability for working parents. These are some of the best investments a state can make—in the current and future workforces of our state. And yet, inexplicably, they seem to be the programs that are the first to go when budget negotiations take place.”

Mardi Isler, public policy director for the Pittsburgh Association of the Education of Young Children (PAEYC), spoke of the impact early education has on children and society in general.

“We should not be cutting the very programs and services that support families as they go to work. By providing a foundation for future success in school for all children, we are thinking of our future.”

Frankel called the cuts a disruption of the “fabric of health care and early education” and said the state should be emphasizing “investment versus incarceration” in response to the budget's increase in spending on the state prison system, while cutting education.

Of the 294 districts who responded to a statewide study conducted by the PA Association of School Administrators (PASA) and the PA Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) on how districts are balancing budgets:

  • Half the districts have cut instructional programming
  • More than 70 percent have dipped into reserve funds to balance budgets and delay further service reductions.
  • 70 percent have increased class size
  • 44 percent reduced courses not required for graduation.
  • Almost 20 percent have eliminated summer school for students needing credits for graduation.
  • Nearly 35 percent have eliminated or reduced tutoring programs for struggling students.
  • Thirteen school districts have eliminated all-day kindergarten and 18 have reduced or eliminated prekindergarten programs. A total of 8,365 positions have been eliminated from the respondent school districts.

The state representatives urged the use of Pennsylvania's gambling funds and imposition of Marcellus Shale taxes as better ways to fund education and avoid cutting services.

Smith promised to package the testimony to present to the legislature in preparation for next year's budget talks.

“Today we had the opportunity to hear directly from administrators and parents from local school districts, providers of support services and organizations that monitor education or study the effects on various populations in our region. Unfortunately, they confirmed my fears and it is clear that the draconian cuts are being felt in many ways.”

Those testifying at the hearing included: Carey Harris, executive director, A+ Schools; William Hileman, executive board member-at-large and staff representative, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers; Martha Isler, public policy director, Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children; Channing Martin, government relations associate, Women and Girls Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania; Dr. Timothy Steinhauer, superintendent of schools, Mt. Lebanon School District.

Also, Nancy Aloi Rose, acting superintendent, Bethel Park School District; Dr. Reggie Bonfield, superintendent, Northgate School District; April Weitzel, parent, Carlynton School District; Brigitte Jackson, parent, Northgate School District; James Brophy, director of operations, Outreach Teen and Family Services Inc.; Jennifer Beagan, senior program director, Allegheny Intermediate Unit; and Patrick Sable, chief financial officer, Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

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