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Friday, February 17, 2012

Testimony to the House Democratic Policy Committee

Susan Gobreski, Executive Director

February 16, 2012

Good morning and thank you for inviting me to speak with you today. Education Voters is a non-profit public interest organization that advocates for better public policy for the education of Pennsylvania’s students. We believe that every child should have an excellent education and an opportunity to learn. We have over 16,000 supporters, from every county in the Commonwealth and we have over 46,000 people who receive periodic updates from us. We meet with over 1000 community representatives and parents annually to discuss PA’s public education policy.

Our testimony today will focus on the public interest: what it is with regard to public education and why we believe that this current budget proposal, and indeed the direction of funding for public education, does not meet any reasonable test for serving the public interest.

At a very basic level, the role of government is to support the public interest: to promote policies that bring benefits to communities where the benefits do not accrue just to individuals, but to recognize that policies that merit government attention are ones that ultimately do one of three things: promote opportunities, remedy systemic disparity, and protect the rights of individuals.

And if a key role of government is producing, or facilitating the production of, benefits that accrue to a broader constituency than just individuals, than the measure of whether or not something achieves that objective may be summed up as: something that brings an improvement to the quality of life for many, is administered in an objective manner; that seeks to provide a level playing field and a fair opportunity for all; and that tackles any systemic inequities.

Public education serves the public interest. It promotes, albeit imperfectly, that one should not be dependent on the wealth of one’s parents to be entitled to access an education. We are not where we need to be, but our shortcomings should not cause us to cast aside this worthy goal. Public education assigns rights to a child, including the right to opportunity and sets forth a framework to protect those rights. It recognizes that it is not just the child being educated that benefits, but the community. Higher levels of educational attainment result in more productive people who then share the costs of services on which we all depend; that an educated workforce increases productivity, that people with know-how and skill start businesses, invent things, create jobs for others, build things, act in a civic leadership capacity, sweep the sidewalk and coach little league. Educated people are more likely to be self-sufficient and less likely to rely on services. If we are concerned about the cost of welfare, or the notion of dependency, or imprisonment, then we must inherently be concerned about providing a quality education to all. Shortchanging education means pulling back on a commitment to being an opportunity society.

I thought I’d list out a few economic benefits to the Commonwealth of PA of improving educational achievement, and I am providing as part of my testimony, material from the Alliance for Excellent Education that is specific to PA.

  • Over a lifetime, an 18 year old who does not complete high school earns approximately $260,000 less than an individual with a high school diploma and contributes about $60,000 less in lifetime federal and state income taxes. ii
  • For every 1000 people graduate from high school rather than drop out, there would have been $128 million in increased spending and $45 million in increased investments.
  • A number I am sure you have heard before, but bears repeating: every $1 invested in early childhood education yields $7-16 in returns from savings in future service and support costs.
  • We could expect to get $18 million in increased tax revenue in a year, if we are able to improve educational outcomes and prevent young people from dropping out.
  • A one year increase in average years of schooling for dropouts would reduce murder and assault by almost 30% vehicle theft by 20% and burglary and larceny by 6%.

With all that in mind, I’d like to highlight key points about this year’s budget proposal. I’d like to remind this body that we are just 5 months into a school year in which we experienced $900 million in cuts. These 900 million in cuts are not old news. The impact of these cuts is in full effect right now: classes sizes have been increased, programs have been cut already and schools are looking at additional cuts even as we speak; communities are facing the prospect of increasing property taxes.

Let’s just take a quick look at class size for example. It is easy to think that it does not matter how many children are in a room when a teacher teaches, but if we believe that teaching quality matters, than we must believe that teachers need to be able to provide enough individual attention to each student and their needs. If a class goes from 22-30, that is nearly a 36% increase. For each other area that is experiencing loss, such as the loss of Kindergarten, tutoring, technology, materials, we could point out the depth of the impact.

It is irresponsible of this Governor, and it would be irresponsible of this legislature, to treat a budget that is 5 months in to dealing with nearly $1 billion in cuts as “the new normal”. We should not be discussing this year’s funding levels in a vacuum. There was one right thing to do for public education in this year’s budget and that was to restore the funds that were cut from our students and our communities last year and it didn’t happen.

These $900 million in cuts were not administered fairly, and in fact fell disproportionately on minority communities. Rolling back the funding levels also had the effect of “rolling back” the funding distribution method and eliminating fixes that had been put in place. My colleagues testifying have laid that out very clearly.

In addition, this budget includes the elimination of approximately $94 million in cuts to funds that were allocated to programs directed specifically at student achievement brings us to just about a billion in cuts in less than 12 months.

And lest anyone tells you that money doesn’t matter: I’d like to offer a partial list of the way that the amount of money available plays a role in educational quality:

-Class size, technology, availability of programs such as language, music, arts, all demonstrated to have positive learning impacts; early education, tutoring, training and development and advancement of staff, providing support staff so teachers can teach rather than nurse or clean. Physical fitness, civic skills, financial skills - it costs money to offer these things. People talk about doing a better job evaluating teachers: it takes people to do that and people cost money. Heat or air conditioning in school buildings cost money.

It may be true there are some ways to improve the way we spend the money we have, but people must stop repeating the lie that money doesn’t matter to education. It is either deliberately false or willfully ignorant at this point.

This budget packages together several items and calls it a block funding. Here is the problem with that: in addition to eliminating formulas for distributing those funds, which has been covered here today, the fact is the money for transportation and payment of social security are not terribly flexible, which means that “basic education” will be the thing that is most flexible: it will get what is left over, after other things are paid.

The political spin has been that this is the fault of the temporary stimulus money, but in reality, the stimulus money was supposed to be used to help prevent harmful state cuts during the worst of the downturn– they paid our bills and after that money was gone, the Commonwealth was supposed to resume their role in properly funding and advancing the state basic education formula. The political tricks and fuzzy math abound: this proposal, reduces overall spending, combined several line items into one and called it an increase, knowing that the average person isn’t going to read the line by line version of the budget. It would be like doing this to your kids; last week your allowance was $10, plus I gave you $8 for lunch money and then $2 for your scout dues. But from now on, instead, I am going to give you $15 in allowance (total) as your money for the week (with regard to the elimination of stimulus money). There, I increased your allowance. Aren’t you happy?”

I realize the point of today’s hearing is to talk about this year’s budget, but any budget must be judged in terms of what it does now, and what it does for the future, including does it move the policy of the Commonwealth in the right direction.

I am attaching to my testimony our piece “Developing a Sensible Approach to Funding Our Schools.” We would submit that there are three main filters for judging any funding proposal:

  • Is it aligned to standards: does it provide the education we think our students should have
  • It is fiscally responsible and fair to students and communities: including using an accurate assessment of factors, it should be stable for planning purposes, transparent, protect taxpayers rights to have their money used transparently and as intended, with conditions we have decided upon, and it should reduce the reliance on property taxes because that is just a terrible way to fund basic education. It has a harmful financial effect and impacts minority communities (handout).
  • Is it Constitutional and ethical: does it take politics out of it? Our Constitution actually states that we should provide a thorough and efficient system. SO there’s that. Ultimately, we need a formula so we aren’t negotiating this stuff every year. It shouldn’t be the powerful or the people who have something to bargain with that are best able to navigate our school funding “system” – it should be driven out using a methodology that insulates it from political winds.

This budget is not in the public interest. It does not remedy systematic inequities, in fact it increases them; it does not provide for, or even chart a course for providing opportunity and a level playing field; it does not provide for students to meet learning standards which means that we are reducing the prospect of broader community benefits. It does not enjoy public support. I urge the legislature to restore the $900 million and get Pennsylvania back on the right track.

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