Public School Funding

How did this happen?
The story behind the public school financing debacle.

AAUW could not have picked a more timely topic to discuss, considering the terrible crisis in the Philadelphia Schools that has just recently caused the state-appointed School Reform Commission to attempt to annul the teachers’ contract.

Public school funding in one of those topics that everybody knows a little bit about, and we all know what the old saying is about “a little knowledge…” So, how did we get here? How on earth have we gotten to the point where our public schools can barely survive? Let’s look at just a little bit of background on this subject.

First of all, if we examine what the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights say about the rights of American children to an education, we will quickly conclude that these founding documents of our democracy say not a word on the subject. But what about the Pennsylvania Constitution?

“Article III, LEGISLATION, B. Education” contains two clauses, the first of which is Section 14, titled “Public School System.” That Section states in its entirety,

The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.

Following that is Section 15, titled “Public School Money Not Available to Sectarian Schools and states,

No money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.

The wording may seem very simple, but as with all things, “the devil is in the details,” and those two clauses have been interpreted through the 200 years of PA history to mean many different things! But the basic question remains, why does this education language show up in the state constitution but not in the federal constitution? Because in the 1770’s and 80’s few people gave a thought to the possibility of educating anyone but the landowners and gentry – and their education was not achieved in a public school! It was received first at home and then primarily in church-related settings until the student had reached his or her teen years.

Massachusetts was the only state to consider “public” education at a very early date – 1647 – when the state passed a law that all towns having more than 50 households were to provide education for the children, paid for by the citizens of that town. That provided a basis for the establishment of schools, but it did not require children to attend them and, in fact, most children of working people continued to learn little more than their alphabet, rudimentary reading, and simple arithmetic before going to work full time on the home farm or in mills and mines.

Up until the mid 1800’s, a child had to be three things in order to expect an education: wealthy, male, and white. But around that time, education reformers such as Horace Mann and a little later John Dewey, as well as an industrialist by the name of Edmund Dwight were looking toward European countries, especially to Germany which had begun to provide education to the masses. The American reformers believed that we needed to do the same in the U.S. in order to keep up with the industrial and technical changes that were allowing greater prosperity in Europe.

And while the federal government was not in a position to provide free public education in that era that didn’t mean that men such as Dewey and Mann were going to give up on their ideas! So these men and others began to advocate for state systems that would tap state and local funds through state and local laws in order to institutionalize the concept of free public education for all. These state systems were established first in the New England and Mid-Atlantic states, and took many, many more years to develop in states such as Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana – some of which were not yet even fully recognized as states!

Therefore by the time that the majority of states was ready for public education, doing this from a federal level would have meant dismantling the state-established systems that were already entrenched and expanding in many northern states. All public education, then, became the purview of the states and remained entirely so until very recently in U.S. history.

The last important piece of the education funding jigsaw puzzle here in Pennsylvania, is the further de-centralization of power over education here in the state, where there are 501 separate school districts! In most other state, Maryland and Virginia for example, school “districts” are in fact commensurate with counties, or several combined counties. Here in Chester County, for example, instead of 12 school districts as there are currently, we would be one single school district, eliminating the need for 11 superintendents, 11 school boards, 11 central administration buildings and staff, etc. The state of Pennsylvania would be, at the very most, 67 school districts instead of 501! The financial savings is incalculable!

The first real foray of the federal government with any substantial impact on local public education came with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That was followed shortly by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (referred to as ESEA, and in 2002 sub-titled No Child Left Behind,) and later by the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1990, and it is only through the threat of withholding funds that these laws have any state impact. In other words, the laws require that any state or local district that accepts federal money, even through college tuition such as the G.I. Bill, must then follow these federal laws with regards to the rights of all citizens and the responsibilities of elected governments. It is from these laws that we most often hear references to such things as “Title VII” or “Title IX;” those “titles” are in fact sections of the Civil Rights Act.

Involvement of the government in local and state education systems accelerated in 1981 when then-President, Ronald Reagan commissioned a study whose results have become known as “A Nation at Risk.” See Attachment 1. That report, issued in 1983, was the first nail in the coffin for public support of schools, even though the document itself was not as critical of the schools as the “legends” that have grown up about it. Follow this link to read the report:

The results of this report are still being felt. Part of the problem was that it did not contain clear, proven strategies for improvement, and the report had to be interpreted by 50 different state governments and 50 departments of education, as well as by countless individual school districts, all with different philosophies of what public education should or should not be, and all with different levels of financial commitment.

Without a doubt the most damaging result of A Nation at Risk was the re-authorization of the ESEA of 2002, under then-President George W. Bush that was renamed by his administration “No Child Left Behind.” Many people have seen firsthand the destruction that NCLB has done to the public schools, but that destruction would not have been possible without the previous 20-year, intentional destruction of the reputation of America’s public education system that was begun by A Nation at Risk!

Few people understand how NCLB has wreaked such havoc in just 12 years’ time; the fact is that NCLB was structured and regulated precisely to have the current effect – the de-funding of public schools at the most basic level, which has led to the undermining of the very foundation of the American public school system. It is a testament to the excellence of those very schools that it took nearly a decade of the cynical policies of NCLB before the destruction of the first districts occurred.

The NCLB was structured so that all schools in the U.S. were required to set a “baseline” through testing of selected grades of their students in 2002. Those tests were written and approved by the various state education agencies allowing states leeway in the depth and breadth of subject matter in the tested areas of language (including reading, writing, and comprehension), and mathematics (including numeracy and application).

In most states, the four defined achievement levels are “Advanced,” “Proficient,” “Basic,” and “Below Basic.” The acceptable scores are those which fall in the first two categories: Advanced or Proficient. If we use as an example an imaginary school district that we shall call “Smart Valley,” and suppose that 80% of its students tested in 2002, the baseline year, at either the Advanced or Proficient levels, NCLB would then require that students in this district improve over the following 10-year period, until 100% of them would test at Advanced or Proficient by the year 2012.

In that 10-year period, the students in “Smart Valley” School District were expected to improve by at least 2% each year so that the 20% improvement could be achieved by the year 2012. It is not difficult to recognize the ridiculous fallacy of this concept! The first insurmountable obstacle is that the students being tested are different ones in each year – and therefore the comparisons are of the “apples and oranges” variety! The second obstacle is that the public schools are products of their communities and there is no population anywhere in which all the children can achieve equally at a top level – not even in Lake Woebegone!

The inevitable must begin to occur within a few years – once the students in Smart Valley have maximized their scores by learning the tricks of test-taking, the district’s forward improvement will, of necessity, slow and eventually stop! At this point, a school district that was previously very high on any known scale of achievement begins to be labeled “failing” f or not achieving the necessary percentage increases to enable it to reach that elusive 100%!

Even more cynically, once this failure extends over 2 years or more, those schools can then suffer various consequences, ranging from loss of funding to proliferation of charter schools, to takeover by a state oversight team as has occurred in Philadelphia. The most pervasive problem that has come out of the implementation of NCLB as interpreted by the state of Pennsylvania has been the growth of the charter school movement.

The original purpose of the “charter” school idea was that these schools would be:

  • Established by interested parents, citizens, and educators who wanted to use experimental or non-traditional concepts to reach students who were not succeeding in regular classrooms.
  • Freed from the non-funded mandates of state and federal laws in order to allow for innovative methods and concepts.
  • Public schools, run by the public entity, and non-profit.
  • Targeted to those areas where schools were “failing” and students and parents had no other “choice” for good education.

In fact, what has developed in Pennsylvania does not even resemble the initial idea of charter schools! What has developed are schools that:

  • Were organized by for-profit corporations who recruit disgruntled parents to front for their efforts to establish schools.
  • Are run by companies “hired” by these parents and citizens either to carry out a specific agenda or to make money.
  • Have been organized not just in areas where the schools have struggled, but all over the state, especially in those areas where the per-pupil spending is very high, such as in the Philadelphia suburbs and other high-income areas.
  • Have failed miserably in high poverty areas such as Chester, Reading, Allentown, and others, at their primary mission to improve the learning of the children whose parents have sent them in hopes of finding better opportunities (except in certain areas of Philadelphia). See attachments 1 & 2.
  • Have high incidents of fraud and deceptive financing charges.
  • Have, despite their overwhelming failures, siphoned monumentally huge sums of money from local, taxpayer-supported school districts. See attachment 2.

Charter school “reform” has been limited thus far in Pennsylvania to proposals that would tend to make it easier for corporations to establish them and to limit even further the oversight of these schools by the local schools districts who are funding them! Instead, what is needed are laws to ensure that these schools are providing the education they have promised.

There is one final area that has been blamed for the funding crisis in Pennsylvania schools – the Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS). The little-known facts of that funding crisis tend to make citizens believe that it is the very existence of a public pension system that is the problem – while nothing could be further from the truth!

The PSERS and Public Employee Pension System (both must, by law, have the same regulations and funding sources) have historically been extremely viable, well-funded, and well-administered systems. Until the 1990’s when Governor Ridge chose to change some of their basic regulations in order to support public employees in his administration, both the PSERS and the Public Employee Pension System in PA were healthy and productive. But when Ridge accepted the appointment of G.W. Bush to become the first Secretary of Homeland Security, he had put in just 6 years of his 8-year tenure. Ridge saw that employees he had brought into the state government would not have put in sufficient time to be vested in their state retirement plan, so he orchestrated a reduction in time from the 10 year vesting requirement to a new requirement of only 5 years.

That change alone would have caused a strain on the systems, but further damage was done when, during the bull market years of the 1990’s, the legislature allowed the state and public employers to withhold their required pension payments for their employees! Public employees however, including all those employed in the public schools, continued without pause to pay into their pension system, at the same rate as always.

As the number of vested members increased without support from employers or the state, it was probably that the system would be weakened; that probability became an inevitability when the stock market began to fail in the recessions of 1998 and again in 2007. An ordinary citizen would conclude that those in charge of things as important as pensions would ring the alarm and begin to move employers and state government back to their responsibilities of paying into the system. But of course, that extra money in their coffers was way too tempting, and no such move was made until it was far too late to stop the hemorrhaging!

The results, of course, are pension systems that are unable to support those for whom they were established, and who have been faithfully paying their shares over many years. But the politicians would have everyone believe that these pensions are unfairly generous and put a huge burden on the taxpayers! If you are interested in a simple, very effective, and very entertaining look at how the pension system failure happened, follow this link:

Public schools are, without a doubt, the basis and the linchpin of our democracy! Without them, our nation is a hollow promise, not a land of opportunity. All those who call themselves patriotic Americans should wholeheartedly support publicly-funded schools for all children, that provide high quality education for all children in this country – regardless of where they reside!

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