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The Pennsylvania School Boards Association is pleased to see some of the funding cuts originally proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett in February restored by the General Assembly in the final approved 2012-13 state budget, including reinstatement of the Accountability Block Grant (ABG) at $100 million, and an additional $49 million to help distressed schools. However, these increases come on the heels of last year’s huge cuts to public education. The association cautions that public education cannot continue to sustain the funding cuts it has seen in the last several budgets and be expected to continue the positive gains schools have been making in regards to student achievement.
“Each year it becomes more challenging for school boards to balance their budgets while maintaining high student standards,” said PSBA Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel. “School boards are struggling with lower state funding, losses of local tax revenues, historic increases in pension costs and virtually no relief from costly state mandates – a prescription for undermining the quality of education being provided to our children.
“Regardless of what numbers you look at – state, federal stimulus – public education funding is in catch-up mode. Spending for public education that stays at or near level funding actually is a step backwards,” said Gentzel. “School entities’ expenses continue to increase so it is important that our priorities stay focused on properly funding public education, which serves nearly 90% of the students in the commonwealth.”
PSBA is pleased to see the ABG restored to $100 million. Many districts rely on this popular grant program to fund research-proven programs such as full-day kindergarten. Also, the budget did not include the Student Achievement Education Block Grant (SAEBG) proposed by the governor. Gov. Corbett proposed the new SAEBG as a way to provide “flexibility” to school entities. However, in reality, the grant would have disconnected the relationship and transparency between the actual cost of services and the amount of state support received. Items that would have been included in the SAEBG were basic education funding, pupil transportation, nonpublic and charter school transportation, and school employees’ social security appropriations.
True flexibility could be provided to school entities through meaningful mandate relief, which PSBA has been requesting for years. Mandates negatively impact local decision-making, either by dictating in considerable detail the actions to be taken or by limiting available options. Some, like the mandate to pay artificial prevailing wages on construction projects, can inflate expenses. Others can prevent school boards from cutting costs. For example, unlike virtually any other level of government, school districts are not permitted to furlough professional employees for economic reasons.
PSBA also is concerned that special education has been level funded for the fifth year in a row. These costs continue to increase each year. Level-funding does not cover the true costs school entities face with special education and with no increases in many years, school entities actually are falling behind.
A proposal to place a moratorium on school construction and renovation projects did not go through as originally designed. Instead, an amendment reads that “the Department of Education shall not accept or approve new school building construction or reconstruction project applications” for the 2012-13 fiscal year. Completed school building construction or reconstruction project applications received by the Department of Education by October 1, 2012, are not subject to this provision.
PSBA is pleased that discussion of a plan to create a statewide authorizer for charter schools has been pushed back to the fall. Creating such a board would take away any involvement from the local community and silence the voice of local taxpayers, yet still makes them responsible for financially supporting the charter schools in their districts created by this distant and unaccountable authorizing group. The proposed legislation also did nothing to address the inequities in funding charter and cyber charter schools, such as the “double-dip” they receive for pension costs.
PSBA is concerned about the Education Improvement Scholarship Credit (EISC) Program legislation that passed which allows businesses to receive tax credits for giving money toward scholarships targeted at lower-income students in the state’s worst-performing schools. This has effectively set up a taxpayer-funded tuition voucher program with no transparency or accountability to the taxpayers who will be picking up the check. The program siphons valuable dollars from the general fund, via tax credits, that could have otherwise been used to restore last year’s budget cuts.
There is no requirement in the legislation for scholarship organizations and opportunity scholarship organizations to report on the educational progress or student achievement of the students receiving scholarships to attend private or nonpublic schools.
In addition to the lack of academic transparency and accountability, the legislation lacks fiscal accountability and transparency as well. The bill imposes no requirements on scholarship and opportunity scholarship organizations or on the participating private and nonpublic schools to report administrative and program expenditures to the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) and there is no requirement for DCED to review this information or other financial information or to conduct annual financial audits of these organizations.
The Pennsylvania School Boards Association is a nonprofit statewide association of public school boards, pledged to the highest ideals of local lay leadership for the public schools of the commonwealth. Founded in 1895, PSBA was the first school boards association established in the United States.