Continued Cuts: The PASA-PASBO Report on School District Budgets
Debates concerning Pennsylvania public school funding are nothing new. Governors, legislators and education leaders have been experimenting with various approaches to raising revenue, distributing aid and strengthening “common schools” since the 1830s.
What is unique about the current debate is that it is playing out against the backdrop of long-term demographic, economic and political trends which, together, present enormous challenges for the Commonwealth.
As evidenced by one of the nation’s weakest job growth rates, Pennsylvania has never fully recovered from the 2008 financial crisis. As a result, the state faces gaping annual budget deficits at the very point that massive pension obligations and other increased mandated costs are coming due. State policymakers have responded with cuts to the main basic education subsidy and key categorical programs. But the nearly three-decade absence of a stable school funding formula means that these cuts have rolled out in unpredictable ways—and without respect to criteria such as student enrollments, poverty rates and local tax effort.
These facts have forced local school boards in the vast majority of districts to increase property taxes. Unfortunately, even these additional revenues are no match for externally-driven costs such as special education and payments to charter schools. The state’s inability to pass comprehensive reforms in these and other areas compounds the pressure and uncertainty.
Finally, the evolution of two decades of standards-based education reform means that teachers and students face greater personal accountability for performing at high levels against increasingly rigorous academic targets. As an example, districts statewide are working to manage the simultaneous implementation of new academic standards, a system of test-based graduation requirements and multi-faceted teacher and principal evaluation procedures.
The January update of the annual PASA-PASBO survey on school district budgets provides new detail on how the state’s education community is responding to these challenges. Our results reflect the largest sample ever recorded in the four-year history of this survey, with 321 school districts, or 64 percent of the statewide total, providing responses (see Figure 1). Together, these districts educate more than 1.1 million Pennsylvania public school students, 70 percent of the statewide total.
The purpose of this report is two-fold.
First, we seek to update the data from our spring 2014 survey, which was conducted prior to enactment of the state’s fiscal year 2014-2015 budget. On this count, our main finding was a bleak one: overwhelmingly, projected cuts, reductions, and tax hikes were implemented in final spending plans. Second, we pose additional questions, and look ahead to 2015-2016, to provide the most comprehensive accounting possible of what the immediate future holds for Pennsylvania’s public schools. The answer? Ninety-nine percent of respondents anticipate fiscal year 2015-2016 will bring more of the same or worsening fiscal conditions.
The fourth-annual PASA-PASBO report includes statistics on mandated costs, local property tax increases and staff and programmatic reductions. For the first time, we also include district case studies to provide a more complete picture of the hardships in specific communities across our state. Our analysis shows that districts in every corner of the Commonwealth are implementing policies that reduce student opportunity and success. With every additional month, week and day of inaction, these consequences grow deeper—and the burdens on districts and taxpayers intensify.
Published: January 2015