June 30, 2011 will be a date that people will point to in years to come as the day the “new normal” was established when it comes to funding basic education in the Commonwealth. Time will tell if this new normal will work wonders for our public schools, or if this paradigm shift causes real damage. One thing we know: school districts will be doing business quite a bit differently from here on out.
The state budget this year included cuts in basic education funding of close to a billion dollars ($962 million), including cuts to the popular Accountability Block Grant program, as well as a complete wipe-out of funds that schools used to receive to pay for the cost of charter schools. Yes, school districts across Pennsylvania were warned that there was no more federal stimulus money, but these cuts went quite a ways above and beyond those dollars.
That an education budget like this one could even pass the General Assembly marks a dramatic shift from where the state was just five years ago, when the Costing Out Study was the name of the game, and schools were the beneficiary of eight years of generous funding increases. Historically, in good times and bad, public schools have never faced a decrease in state funding. There have been times when funding levels were frozen, but even those instances were few and far between.
Most budget seasons, rank-and-file lawmakers base their budget yea or nay in large part by how it affected their school districts. For both chambers to pass a budget that cuts funding for every school in the state is nothing short of astounding.
Hours later, the paradigm shift was complete when the House and Senate both passed, and Governor Tom Corbett signed, a bill that would greatly reduce school boards’ ability to raise property taxes. Proposed increases above the state index (think 1.5%, typically) will have to go to voter referendum, with exceptions being made for pension contributions and extraordinary special education costs.
Pennsylvania elected officials know firsthand how often, or more aptly, how rarely voter referendums succeed (1 out of 14 since the original, much less restrictive law, was passed.) So in one fell swoop, public school aid was cut by unprecedented levels, while the ability to raise funds locally was drastically curtailed. In effect, what lawmakers did, whether inadvertently or not, was to take ownership of local school budgets. Now, the onus to fund those school districts will fall primarily on the state in years to come. And if the General Assembly continues down this course of austerity, which by all accounts it is more than willing to do?
Then the new normal becomes school boards, going hat in hand to the voters, asking for increased revenue. School districts are, to be blunt, woefully unprepared for this task. Gone are the days when school boards would hold a few open meetings, then pass the budget. Instead, those boards will now have to find a way to communicate meaningfully with a huge swath of their own constituents who have very little to gain by authorizing property tax increases.
For sure, school boards can still communicate fairly easily with parents though the children who attend the schools. That universe has to expand now to include seniors with no children left in school, newly-married couples with no children, and single people who don’t plan on having children anytime soon.
Here are five quick scenarios created by the new normal.
- School construction – There are a large number of rapidly-growing school districts whose population growth is far outstripping the state aid they receive. Their budgets are already pushed to the max, and many of them need new facilities. Conversely, there are poor districts with dwindling tax bases that still educate children in buildings built in the 1950s. Your mission, local school board? Convince the voters to allow you to raise property taxes to build a new school.
- Unfunded mandates – The federal government may be poised to do some level of re-write to the No Child Left Behind Act. If this re-write entails anything that a school district will have to do but not get direct funding for, the local school board will now be in a position to try and convince voters to authorize more spending to comply with federal law. Schools boards are already hamstrung by federal and state mandates, now they may need voter approval when a new one lands in their laps.
- Consolidation – There is little doubt that this new normal will make struggling schools think more seriously about achieving savings through consolidation. If two districts pursue consolidation, the school boards may be in a position to immediately ask for a tax increase to cover the initial costs.
- Extra-curricular activities – Many districts are already asking parent s to pay for their children to participate in sports, the marching band or other after-school activities. As budgets get tighter, it may become too costly for some parents to do so. Will boards then go to voters to ask them if they mind paying higher property taxes to support the football team, or the band?
- Teacher layoffs – One of the most difficult decisions a board makes is to furlough teachers and this year’s state budget has already forced an unprecedented number of layoffs. Two or three years down the road, classroom sizes may again balloon back to dangerous levels, and student instruction could suffer. At what point will a board be willing to go to the voters for the extra property tax money to hire teachers again?
The new normal moves the issue of school funding into the public arena like never before, and the state’s 500 school districts had better figure out a way to communicate with the public in a much more effective way than was necessary two weeks ago. Will it be through social media or town hall-style meetings? What will be the role of P.R. campaigns and grassroots coalition-building?
The new normal is upon our school districts, and by our count, they have about seven months to figure it out. That will be when their next budgets, and perhaps first referendum votes, will be unveiled.