Why Are So Many Pennsylvania Schools Shutting Down?
Over the past few months, I have attended two public hearings in two separate school districts about the closing of two separate rural elementary schools, and they show pretty clearly the giant disconnect that allows the assault on public education to continue unchecked.
People pay a lot of attention to the marquee school financial crises in PA, like York and Philadelphia, but the same plague of budget-driven school closings is spreading across Pennsylvania's small districts as well.
It is not simply a matter of declining student population, and it is not a matter of district tax bases falling on tough times. School districts across PA did not mysteriously simultaneously elect budgetary nincompoops. It's a widespread financial crisis, and it's manufactured.
How to Manufacture a Statewide Financial Crisis
Like every other state in the U.S., we face certain financial challenges. But it takes some extra steps to turn a challenge into a crisis.
Cut state funding. This puts the making-up-the-difference pressure on local taxpayers. Pennsylvania is in the bottom ten for the state's contribution to local school revenue. That helps PA maintain one of the largest spending gaps between rich and poor schools in the country.
Take a ton of money away from public schools and give it to charters. When a public school student takes $10 K of local tax money away to a charter or cyber-charter, the local school district's costs do not decrease by $10 K.
Create a huge pension funding crisis. This is its own kind of challenge, but the quick explanation is this -- pre-2008, invest in really awesome stuff, and when that all tanks and districts suddenly have huge payments to make up, tell the districts they can just wait till later and hope for magic financial fairies to fix it. It is now later, there are no fairies, and a small district with an $18 million budget is looking at pension payments that go up $500K every year.
Oh, and pass a law that says districts can't raise taxes more than a smidge in any given year.
Add Political Gamesmanship
Governor Tom Wolf announced his budget proposal, including increased funding for schools and an end to the charter leeching. The GOP legislators at the state capitol sent out a letter saying, "Don't start counting on that. We'll make sure it never happens." The new secretary of education sent superintendents a letter saying, "By mid-May, I want a list of all the things you're going to spend your new money on." The legislators sent the secretary a letter and cc'd superintendents saying, "What are you talking about! How dare you make them account for imaginary money we'll never let them have."
The End Result
Even small school districts are looking down the barrel of seven-figure deficits. The two deficits for which I have now been a power point audience can both be entirely explained by the formula:
Charter Payments + Pension Payment Increases + Other Tiny Obscure Cuts = District Deficit
In other words, a district that had a fiscally responsible year last year, that didn't do anything crazy or odd or unusual and just left everything alone when planning for this year -- that district is still facing huge deficits in their current budgeting cycle, unrelated to any choices that they made in managing their own local district.
But Here Comes the Twist Ending
In PA, districts have to have public hearings before they can close a school. The board is not really supposed to respond -- just listen. So the superintendent starts with a power point presentation, and then taxpayers line up to speak their minds, offer suggestion, and comment on what they think is wrong with the proposal.
Can you guess how many people step up to blame the lobbyists and legislators in Harrisburg?
They tell the board it's a bad board for putting finances ahead of education. They complain about the tax increases they imagine the board is going to vote for next. They suggest that teacher wages should be frozen and the superintendent should work for $1.98. They make emotional, tearful, sometimes child-delivered pleas for the board not to hurt their beloved community school. They hint that the school board has some dark, secret motive.
But nobody steps up to the mic and says, "People! We all need to go home and make phone calls and send emails to our representatives and senators and demand that they stop ripping the financial guts out of our school district. We need to hit them with all the emotional heavy artillery that we brought to this meeting and make them really feel our pain, because they are the ones who caused this crisis. They are the ones that create the policies that take our tax dollars away from our district. They are the ones who put our school board in the position of either cutting services or trying to plant a magical money tree in the back yard. They are the ones who are closing our schools."
It is some sort of amazing Jedi mind trick -- citizens and taxpayers are looking right past the causes of schools' financial problems and deciding to blame it all on local school boards. This is like when your Dad gets a pay cut and has to sell one of the cars, so you yell at him. This is like complaining to a shooting victim for getting blood all over your coat. This is like having someone pick your pocket and demanding that the police arrest your pants.
I feel their pain. I really feel their pain. But I also know that school boards can't spend money they don't have just because they want to spend it on really important things. And I also know that closing a community school is a terrible thing that is bad for education, the community, and the students. And I also know that some districts have are led by creative problem solvers and some are led by hapless problem creators. Many districts socked money away for a rainy day, and they guard it jealously, but now it's monsoon season and we're looking at a legislator-made deluge of well more than forty days. Pennsylvania's leaders have created an environment that requires local school districts to have either A) a miracle worker or B) a bunch of wealthy taxpayers.
As educators, we have a big educating task in front of us. People have got to apply political leverage where it matters -- on the legislators and policymakers who create these ugly messes. Public education is being starved, and somehow we've got people blaming the bowl, the spoon, the table, the starving person herself -- everyone except the real people in the kitchen who are withholding food. If we can't change that, the forces arrayed against public education will win.