After cuts, poor schools hit again
About a third of the way into his budget address last week, Gov. Tom Corbett had stirring words for those who believe one of our greatest obligations is to teach our children well.
The Republican governor stood before the Legislature and declared that every child "deserves an equal start in life." What's more, Corbett added, "I intend to see that promise kept."
It was a notable shift in tone for a governor who only a couple of years ago took the dogmatic stand that it was better to cut nearly a billion dollars from schools than to raise taxes by a single dollar.
But lofty rhetoric without deeds is watery soup. And advocates of strong schools are making the case that Corbett's promise of an "equal start" for every child falls flat.
They point specifically to the uneven way Corbett distributes his proposed $89-million increase -- 1.67 percent more -- for basic education. Some school districts get increases as high as 5.96 percent; others get only 0.75 percent more. Oddly, poor districts are more likely to be the ones at the low end of the scale.
You would think it would be the other way around. Fairness would suggest that fiscally distressed schools with the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students are most in need of extra help. But instead, as Rhonda Brownstein of The Education Law Center points out, "The rich get richer."
By most measures, the School District of Lancaster is the neediest in the county. By tax base, it's the 79th poorest of the state's 500 districts. Also, 81 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced lunches. Under Corbett's past two budgets, the district had state funding cuts amounting to $1,306 per student. Columbia is the second neediest: 83rd poorest tax base, 65 percent lunch subsidies, and per student funding cuts of $2,197.
How do those districts fare under Corbett's new proposal? Lancaster gets an increase of 1.50 percent; Columbia, 1.54 percent -- both below the state average.
But how about the districts that are getting the biggest increases percentage-wise? They are districts in affluent suburbs. Manheim Township gets a 4.68 percent increase; Conestoga Valley, a 4.48 percent boost.
Both districts are in Pennsylvania's top quintile of tax-base wealth. The portion of their students receiving subsidized lunches is relatively low: 26 percent and 35 percent, respectively. And their funding cuts were only $297 and $300 per student, respectively.
"I don't know how you run a formula that ends up funding wealthier districts more than the poorer districts," state Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster) said. "Why would you choose that?"
Why, indeed? You'd think the Corbett administration would have some logical explanation. I'm not sure it does.
I tried to get a straight answer from Education Department press secretary Tim Eller. But in multiple email exchanges, Eller sidestepped my question.
He restated what I already knew, that poorer districts would receive more state aid than wealthier districts. Lancaster's increase is $764,000 compared to $211,000 for Manheim Township. But he did not explain why it's good policy for Manheim Township to have a rate of increase triple that of Lancaster's.
Ronald Cowell of Harrisburg-based Education Policy and Leadership Center, an advocate of equitable school funding, said a sound funding formula would take into account the "extraordinary needs of kids who are poor, are English language learners" or have learning disabilities.
The objective, he said, is to put students from the entire spectrum of economic backgrounds on a level playing field.
If such a formula were in place, it would go far to assure that "equal start in life" Corbett promised.
Corbett's promise offered a great line in a speech, but it's not evidence that he means it. So until Corbett's budget matches his words, hold the applause.