PA Chamber Bringing Education Spending Facts to Light This Budget Season

From Gene Barr
President and CEO, PA Chamber of Business & Industry

With another election season upon us, a previously debunked but repeated falsehood is making its way across newspapers and campaign ads – that the previous governor cut education funding by nearly $1 billion.

Let’s set the record straight on what those who are paying attention refer to as the “$1 billion lie.” The funds in question were federal stimulus dollars that were never meant to be used for school districts’ operations and expired in the early days of the Corbett administration. A June 2013 report by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials affirms that state funding was cut in the final Rendell years and backfilled with temporary stimulus money.

In the years that followed, state spending for education soared to record levels and was at an all-time high by the time Governor Wolf took office. It continues to go up, despite declining enrollment. As budget negotiations take shape, lawmakers will promote higher education spending under the simple guise of needing more money. But studies show that both students and teachers in Pennsylvania actually fare quite well in terms of the amount of taxpayer spending that’s being allocated each year. Consider these findings: a 2015 report by the U.S. Census Bureau ranked Pennsylvania 10th among the states in total per pupil spending; a USA Today article from February found that about 95 percent of Pennsylvania’s public school students attend districts with higher than average per pupil expenditures; and a 2017 National Education Association report shows that Pennsylvania teachers are the 10th highest paid in the nation.

Whether education is a worthy investment isn’t up for debate – most people would agree it most definitely is. In our education policy, the Pennsylvania Chamber stresses that every student deserves the opportunity to earn a high quality education to become the next generation of productive workers. To that end, we promote the expansion of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, which awards tax credits to businesses that contribute toward scholarships for students to attend the school that best meets their needs. We also advocate for transparency in education funding; and last year, celebrated the enactment of an important reform that replaced the ineffective ‘last in, first out’ seniority-based system of furloughing teachers to one based on classroom performance. The PA Chamber is also in our second year of leading a dynamic workforce development program that is connecting students and their families, educators and hiring businesses with in- demand jobs in the skilled trades, and through collaboration with the mikeroweWORKS Foundation and generous business donors is awarding scholarships to students who want to pursue this career route. You can learn more about this initiative and how to get involved at StartTheConversationHere.com.

At the same time that we’re engaged in these efforts we’re also working to advance a responsible state budget that doesn’t impose new tax burdens on businesses or individuals. That’s why our message to lawmakers as they craft this year’s spending plan is to ensure the investments they make in education are focused on promoting positive student outcomes.

The real driver of higher school district costs? The state’s public pension systems. Together, the Public School Employees Retirement System and the State Employees Retirement System have an unfunded liability of about $74 billion, which is due in large part to retroactive benefit increases that government unions are working to maintain through their continued calls for higher taxes. For the 2018-19 state budget, the state’s contribution to PSERS is estimated to be $2.5 billion – an 8.6 percent increase over the current year. Additional pension reforms are needed to get these costs under control and begin to make the real focus of education spending about the students, and not about propping up overly generous public pension benefits that state taxpayers can’t afford.

As budget season approaches, it’s expected that lawmakers will engage in deliberations related to education funding – but those discussions ought to be honest and grounded in the facts. Think of that the next time you hear the $1 billion lie.