Friday, October 10, 2014

Guest Column: Pennsylvania Education Funding: A Look At the Facts

By Pa. State Rep. Garth Everett

Since 2011, when Gov. Tom Corbett took office and Republicans regained the majority in the state House, I have heard ad nauseam about how “Corbett cut education by a billion dollars” or “Corbett is underfunding education.” Let’s just take a look at the facts.

First, governors do not enact budgets by themselves. In February of each year, the governor proposes a budget to start the process. Following that, both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have public hearings with each department and agency of state government to review in detail each proposed appropriation. In addition, both the House and Senate committee chairmen take feedback from their respective committee members and from all members of their respective chambers.

When that review process is complete, both the House and Senate develop their own revised budgets and the negotiation process begins among the House and Senate leaders and the governor’s office. To say that this can be an intense process would be a vast understatement. Each chamber and member of the General Assembly and the governor have differing views and priorities on both revenues and expenditures, and getting 102 votes in the House, 26 in the Senate and the governor onboard is an exhausting undertaking.

My point in outlining the budget process is simply to point out that the enacted budget is not the “governor’s” budget – it is the product of a process – not the dictate of one person, though I will agree that the governor’s one veto vote carries a lot more weight than my one vote on the Appropriations Committee or on the floor of the House.

Next, let’s look at the facts of state education funding in the budgets enacted under the last two governors. In particular, let’s look at Gov. Ed Rendell’s last three education budgets and the four under Corbett. In the 2009-10 budget, Rendell asked for, and the Democratic House approved, a reduction in state education spending from $9.6 billion to $9.2 billion. This reduction was “backfilled” with $655 million in federal stimulus funds to bring about an apparent increase in spending on education.

Again in the 2010-11 budget, Rendell asked for and the Democratic House approved a reduction in state education spending from the previous year’s $9.2 billion to $8.9 billion. Again this reduction was backfilled with $1 billion in federal stimulus funds to bring about another apparent increase in spending on education.

The problems with using short-term stimulus funds are many. First, it sets school districts up for failure. Despite warnings that these stimulus dollars would go away after two years and that state funding would go back to pre-stimulus levels, many school districts folded these stimulus funds into their operating budgets, hired new teachers and staff, took on new debt and generally increased spending to levels which would not be sustainable without significant school property tax increases.

Second, from a state budget perspective, relying on stimulus funds to be part of the general education funding line also set the state budget up for failure by artificially inflating the revenue for the overall state budget. In the 2009-10 and 2010-11 budgets, the $655 million and $1 billion in federal stimulus funds that were used in the education line item were treated as revenue and shifted into increased spending in other line items of the budget.

Fast forward to 2011-12 – Corbett takes office, the majority in the House shifts to the Republicans, and the $1 billion in federal stimulus dollars for education go away. Because of this loss of $1 billion and other “smoke and mirrors” budgeting by the previous governor and House, the new governor and House are faced with a $4 billion deficit going into their first budget. This results in a lot of belt tightening in departments and agencies across the board – particularly the Department of Public Welfare.

To avoid the “budget crunch” both school districts and the state faced in 2011-12 and in subsequent budget years, those stimulus funds in 2009-11 should not have been used as “revenue” for spending in the general fund but rather used as block grants for specific capital investments at school districts above and beyond our normal state education funding. In that way, we would not have ended up with artificially high levels of spending that cannot be sustained with our existing revenue stream.

Now, let’s take a look at education spending during Corbett’s years in office. The first “Corbett budget” in 2011-12 included $9.4 billion of state funds for education – an increase of $500 million over the previous year’s state spending in the last “Rendell budget.” In the next “Corbett budget” of 2012-13, state spending on education was again increased $300 million to $9.7 billion – the highest amount of state funding in history. Again in the 2013-14 budget, state spending on education was increased to $9.98 billion – another record. Finally, in this year’s budget for 2014-15, “we” increased state spending on education to an all-time high of $10.5 billion.

So, the question remains – where does the claim of Tom Corbett’s $1 billion cut in education come from? The only answer is that the facts do not bear out the claim, and that the only $1 billion cut in education was the loss of federal stimulus funding in 2011.

Rep. Garth D. Everett
84th District
Pennsylvania House of Representatives

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