The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gov. Tom Corbett has slashed funding for Pennsylvania’s neediest students. Fixing schools means voting him out.

Research shows that more funding improves academic achievement, especially for the poorest students.

While admissions counselors are recruiting to fill desks at for-profit schools, students are leaving those classrooms burdened with debt. (Joel van Houdt for The Washington Post)
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Equitable funding for schools is requisite for student success. This is especially true for public schools in low-income communities, where the amount of money funneled into classrooms can have a significant impact on children’s academic achievement. One recent analysis of low-income fourth-graders’ achievement on a national reading test determined that spending an additional $1,000 per student correlated with a 0.42-point increase in test scores (the average test score is about 222). Given that at least 30 states are funding education at a lower level than before the recession, we shouldn’t be surprised that another study, conducted by Stanford University researcher Sean Reardon, found that the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is 30 percent to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than those born 25 years earlier.

Schools in the urban core do not have the necessary courses, facilities and services that help students cope with the effects of poverty. Let’s be clear: Schools that serve low-income students need more money, not less. You can’t cut your way toward academic improvement.

However, one governor tried.

Upon taking office in 2011, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett cut $1 billion from education statewide. Even worse, Corbett focused his cost-cutting school improvement plan on the School District of Philadelphia. Philadelphia educates 12 percent of Pennsylvania’s students but has endured 35 percent of the Corbett budget cuts, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

In Philadelphia, as in urban districts across the country, the idea that money isn’t an issue simply doesn’t hold water. We know that well-resourced schools and well-heeled students perform better. Reardon’s study found that family income is now nearly as strong as parental education in predicting children’s achievement. The achievement gap between students from the wealthiest and poorest families is nearly twice as large as the achievement gap between black and white students, according to Reardon. Research has been clear on the positive impact of money on student success, particularly on standardized tests. The Shanker Institute found that “on average, aggregate measures of per-pupil spending are positively associated with improved or higher student outcomes.” Yet, as Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen recently pointed out, “The United States is one of the few advanced economies in which public education spending is often lower for students in lower-income households than for students in higher-income households.”

We also know that half of all U.S. public school students are poor. In Philadelphia, it’s more like 75 percent. That’s a massive hurdle for educators to surmount, especially given that  two-thirds of the factors that impact student achievement occur outside the classroom. Public education can’t counterbalance poverty, but it is an engine of opportunity unrivaled in our society. And, as Yellen also said, “Public funding of education is another way that governments can help offset the advantages some households have in resources available for children.”

Corbett – who got rid of the education funding formula, making Pennsylvania one of three states without one – has actually divvied up public education funding to drive further inequity. According to former state budget secretary Michael Masch, the School District of Philadelphia received a reduction in state funding in 2011-12 of $198 million, a 20 percent cut. By contrast, Pennsylvania’s other 499 school districts received an increase in state funding of $187 million in 2011-12, a 4 percent increase. That’s right: Philadelphia schools received 20 percent less money. All other districts got a 4 percent bump.

The impact on the district and the city of Corbett’s targeting cuts has been devastating. Dozens of schools have been closed. Thousands of teachers and school support staff were laid off. Art and music are scarce, as are nurses and guidance counselors. Classrooms are overcrowded. Teachers are digging deep into their own pockets to buy everything from copy paper to toilet paper for their schools and classrooms.

To add insult to injury, this month, Corbett’s School Reform Commission – the group that oversees Philadelphia schools, which have been state-run for more than a decade – tried to cancel the teachers’ contract unilaterally. The governing panel demanded that all teachers contribute to their health insurance, a contribution similar to what the union had offered as a concession in contract negotiations 14 months ago, but the SRC said wasn’t enough. (A judge has since barred this change and the district has appealed her ruling.) Corbett has said this attempted change would be in the “best interest of the students.” But that’s not what this is really about. Corbett says money the district saved would be used to hire new teachers and staff, but he’s simply shifting the burden of his budget cuts from the state to teachers. He’s blaming educators for the financial crisis he created. We know this because of a secret poll commissioned for Corbett’s reelection that advised him to hinge his campaign on attacking the teachers and their union. So, we’re not surprised that this stunt came just weeks before Election Day.

We have heard similar “it’s all about the kids” rhetoric from governors like Sam Brownback in Kansas, Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Rick Scott in Florida. But like Corbett, they all have cut education funding drastically, and kids in those states have suffered as a result. On Nov. 4, don’t vote for rhetoric. Vote for full and fair funding of our schools.