Lukewarm praise for Accountability Block Grants
While Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and the General Assembly didn’t make many friends in education circles with the approval of a state budget that cuts education funding while totally eliminating other programs, the assembly did win lukewarm praise from an unlikely source for its decision to reinstate Accountability Block Grants, valued at $100 million, and for the extra $49 million going toward distressed school districts.
The Pennsylvania School Board Association — a non-profit organization composed of school boards throughout the state that collectively act as quasi-watchdog for statewide education legislation and funding — cautiously hailed ABG’s reinstatement, but warned of looming financial distress while keeping a watchful eye on the correlation between education funding and academic success for Pennsylvania’s students.
“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.”
The Education Policy and Leadership Project, a public education think-tank based in Harrisburg, reviewed the educational lines in Corbett’s budget and found that roughly $900 million cut from school districts is considered recurring losses for the districts in 2012–2013 and beyond, and that school districts throughout the commonwealth face a collective $300 million in pension payments alone for the coming school year. The project also took issue with certain provisions of the ABG, believing that it will ultimately shift future costs and responsibilities to the school district.
Still, public education can presently use every penny it can get, and even for its warts, the ABG will help.
“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,” Gentzel continued. “School entities’ expenses continue to increase so it is important that our priorities stay focused on properly funding public education, which serves nearly 90 percent of the students in the commonwealth.”
According to figures released by the House Appropriations Committee, while both ABG and Basic Education Funding remained flat in comparison to 2011–2012, for 2012–13, the extra $100 million represents a supplemental appropriation; House Bill 1352, introduced by Representative Todd Stevens, R-Montgomery County, along with the state Senator Jack Corman-sponsored Senate Bill 1466 helped resuscitate the Accountability Block grants.
The School District of Philadelphia will receive $989,750,627 as its portion of the proposed Basic Education Fund, but the district didn’t join 17 others throughout the state in receiving Distressed Schools Supplements; the big winner in that regard in the Chester-Upland School District, which received $9,708,322 in supplements.
The PSBA, however, chided the state for not providing “meaningful mandate relief,” and cited artificially-expanded construction costs and the inability to furlough employees based on financial constraints as two of the areas that need mandate reform the most; PSBA also had other concerns with certain education-related issues included in Corbett’s budget.
“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,” read a statement released by the PSBA. “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,” continued PSBA’s statement. “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 and there is no requirement for DCED to review this information or other financial information or to conduct annual financial audits of these organizations.”