Current Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett’s ads say his administration has increased education support by $1.5 billion. Challenging gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf accuses Corbett of cutting education support by $1 billion during his first term. Both claims define “education support” selectively. How do these selections work? What do they mean?
As Ed Mahon, Kevin McCorry and others have pointed out, Corbett’s argument excludes federal education funding. The Pennsylvania Department of Education in 2009 received around $3 billion through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a New Deal-esque federal program designed to help states survive the recession. Pennsylvania received another $378.8 million in federal support through the Education Jobs Fund in September of 2010.
Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell’s administration, which preceded Corbett’s, made shortsighted decisions when allocating this new federal funding. Rendell cut $50 million in state support for basic education and replaced it with federal stimulus money.
Corbett deepened Rendell’s cut to basic education by another several hundred million dollars when he took office in January of 2011. Federal stimulus funding for education ran out a few months later. Corbett since then restored that support in increments each year. But those increases on their own don’t get anywhere near the $1.5 billion figure.
The governor’s figures must for this reason also include increases in per-year state payouts to the Public School Employees’ Retirement System of Pennsylvania (PSERS). These payouts effectively doubled under Corbett’s first term from $647 million in 2011 to $1.43 billion in 2013, according to an independent actuarial valuation.
Wolf’s calculation does not include the loss of federal stimulus funding for education or Corbett’s bolstered PSERS payouts. It also introduces a new variable: Corbett’s elimination of charter school reimbursements. “Prior to the 2011-12 school year,” according to a 2012 report by the Pennsylvania Department of the Auditor General,
the state provided indirect financial support to charter school education by reimbursing districts a portion of their charter school tuition payments according to established rates (up to 30%, or 41.96% in some instances), but this reimbursement was eliminated in the Commonwealth’s 2011-12 annual budget.
Philadelphia’s school district for example formerly received some state support for each Philadelphia student regardless of whether they attended a local public school, a Blair County cyber charter, etc. The elimination of these reimbursements means the more students that enroll in charters, the less support local school districts receive from the state. Statewide, this has cost school districts around $224 million a year in support, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.
The point here is not simply that Corbett supports charters and Wolf supports public education. Rather, decisions like getting rid of charter reimbursements hurt counties with sizable urban populations worse than counties that do not. Another more recent report by the Auditor General shows that the Allegheny County School District, which contains the city of Pittsburgh, holds 18 charters. Philadelphia’s district holds 87. Few other Pennsylvania counties contain more than three or four.
No governor could have prevented federal funding from running out. Any governor could, and most probably do slant figures to their benefit. But the elimination of charter reimbursements is a clear statement of Corbett’s disregard for his urban constituents.