Corbett’s ‘Ready to Learn’ education budget favors wealthier schools, advocates say

    Here’s an accurate headline you could have written about Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget address earlier this week: Corbett calls for $387 million in increased state education funding.

    But many education advocates are quick to say that hardly tells the full story.

    They say the majority of this proposed funding increase is a one-time influx of cash that’s delivered with many strings attached.

    Corbett’s “Ready to Learn” grant initiative calls for $240 million to be distributed to the state’s 500 school districts by way what the governor’s team calls a predictable, transparent, student-based formula.

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    Districts with more students overall, more English language learners, and higher concentrations of poverty will receive a greater share of the money.

    But districts will not have the autonomy to decide how to use the cash. Those with higher School Performance Profile (SPP) scores – which are based in large part on standardized test scores – will have greater leeway in making spending decisions.

    Under the plan, the Philadelphia School District will receive $29 million (by far the most of all districts).

    But, given its overall SPP score of 57.5, it will only be able to spend the money on certain prescribed initiatives.

    For schools with SPP scores below 60, the state’s top priority is to ensure that schools align their K-3 curriculum to the state standards.

    “The department is recommending that there are some very core elements in raising student achievement that need to be addressed first, and one of those is making sure the curriculum is aligned to the state standards,” said Carolyn Dumaresq,  acting state education secretary.

    By comparison, the Lower Merion school district will receive $272,140 under the plan.

    With its overall SPP score of 92.5, it will be free to use the proposed money for a host of other “Ready to Learn” initiatives, including expanding pre-K options, extending the kindergarten school day or offering supplemental instruction in biology, English and algebra.

    Also, as a district with SPP scores in the 90s, Lower Merion is eligible for Corbett’s “Expanding Excellence” grant program. Through this initiative, the state will divvy up $1 million dollars among some of its top performing schools in hopes that the high-performers will pass on best practices to struggling schools.

    None of the increased funding will go into the state’s basic education subsidy, which will remain at $5.53 billion. Funds from this pot will continue to be distributed through a combination of formula and legislative politics that many education advocates criticize as inadequate and unreliable.

    The governor’s proposed budget also increases special-education funding ($20 million), provides assistance to 1,670 middle- and lower-income families to send kids to pre-K ($10 million), and creates a college scholarship fund for middle- and lower-income high school graduates ($25 million).

    Favors the wealthy?

    Overall, the Governor’s budget proposals–specifically those which tie funding to school performance–received largely negative reviews from education advocates in Philadelphia.

    “There is a real resource crisis in many of our schools and one that cannot be solved by band aid solutions that sidestep the problem,” read the Education Law Center’s official statement.

    “The neediest districts probably need the greatest flexibility in how to use the extra dollars, and instead, they’re being given the most restrictive flexibility,” said the center’s executive director, Rhonda Brownstein, in an interview. “The problem isn’t that districts aren’t somehow aligning their curriculum to the standards. It’s that districts don’t have enough money.”

    Brownstein joined other advocates in saying the governor’s budget proposals favor the state’s wealthier districts.

    Research for Action, a national education research nonprofit based in West Philadelphia, released a brief following Corbett’s budget address that analyzed SPP scores in relation to the percentage of a district’s economically disadvantaged students.

    The report found that “SPP scores are highly correlated with poverty.” Drawing from data available on the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s website, RAF found that, statewide, no school with a poverty rate above 65-percent scored in the highest echelon of SPP scores.

    Dumaresq disagreed with the notion that SPP scores were contingent on wealth.

    “I would say that school buildings that have made sure that they’ve got good curriculum alignment, that have good staff development, and teachers and materials and resources that support that alignment will tend to score better,” she said.

    “Is it more difficult to raise a child that comes [to your school] that maybe doesn’t know their alphabet, doesn’t know counting, that have come from an impoverished home?” Dumaresq asked.

    Her answer: “I would say, absolutely. You have a longer runway to get that child up to age appropriate grade level…but can it be done, obviously, yes it can, and I have great examples of that.”

    As chief examples, Dumaresq cited two schools in the Dallas School District (Luzerne County) and also The Math and Science Academy Middle School in Harrisburg.

    These schools, she said, “are getting an incredible bang for their buck,” based on “targeting their resources more appropriately.”

    Here’s a quick glance at the basic information of these schools:

    Dallas Elementary: SPP score of 93.1; economically disadvantaged population of 19.8%.
    Wycallis Elementary: SPP score of 94.2; economically disadvantaged population of 17.15%.
    Dallas Middle School: SPP score of 76.2; economically disadvantaged population of 23.18%.
    Dallas High School: SPP score of 72.0;  economically disadvantaged population of 18.63%.

    As a point of comparison, take Philadelphia’s Chester A. Arthur, an elementary school which must serve all students who live within its catchment zone.

    Arthur has a SPP score of 63.1, with a population that’s 100-percent economically disadvantaged and 25-percent comprised of special education students.

    Dumaresq’s other example, Harrisburg’s Math Science Academy, scored a 92.2 on the SPP with a population that’s 62.24-percent economically disadvantaged.

    Math Science Academy, though, is a selective admission middle school with a rigorous application process that counts attendance-rates, standardized-test scores, teacher recommendations and student interviews.

    It’s special-education population is 2-percent. (The statewide average is about 15-percent).

    The larger school in which Math Science Academy is housed, Marshall Middle School, breaks down in the following way: 75-percent economically disadvantaged, 20.17-percent ELL, 17.57-percent special-ed, SPP score: 57.2.

    Basic education subsidy

    Secretary Dumaresq said she requested the basic education subsidy remain flat until the legislature implements a predictable, transparent, student-based funding formula.

    She said the “general consensus” is that the “basic instructional subsidy is broken.” Therefore it “doesn’t make sense” to put more money there until a better formula is enacted, which Dumaresq said would require action from the legislature.

    “I wish I could do it,” said Dumaresq. She supports a bill proposed by Rep. Bernie O’Neill, R-Bucks County that would create a commission to study school funding.

    Pennsylvania had such a formula during Ed Rendell’s tenure as governor. It was deactivated after Gov. Corbett took office.

    “I don’t see the Pennsylvania Department of Education or anyone in the [Corbett] administration pushing to reenact that formula,” said ELC’s Brownstein. “It sounds like excuses to put off the real work that needs to be done by saying: let’s wait until sometime in the future to do what we know worked.”

    Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth who served as Rendell’s policy director, concurred.  The administration will need legislative action, she pointed out, to implement the “Ready to Learn” formula as well. 

    If the Corbett administration really wants a better formula for distributing basic-ed dollars, it doesn’t need to wait for a funding commission.

    “That’s just their talking point becasue they wanted to get out of [implementing] a fair formula,” Cooper said. “And this sounds like a nice deflection, but it really doesn’t make any sense.”

    Philadelphia’s $29 million

    Philadelphia school district officials are glad about the $29 million infusion, though still waiting for details.

    The district hopes to use the money for an early childhood education initiative that seeks to ensure that all 8-year-olds can read on grade level.

    “We have this very ambitious goal around getting 100-percent of our 8-year olds reading on grade level,” said Dan Hardy, the district’s chief academic support officer. “We want to make sure that everything that we do is aligned to that, but also satisfies the demands and requirements of the grant.”

    Even though the $29 million is at this point a one-time boost, not recurring funding, Hardy says, “It gets us started.”

    The district must next convince the state that its new initiative meshes with the terms of the “Ready to Learn” funding.

    “The reality is,” Hardy said, “our curriculum is aligned.”

    Despite the district’s plans for the money, the larger issue to Cooper, is that Corbett’s budget proposal doesn’t return to schools the “core operating resources” they lost after years of budget cuts.

    “It’s very hard for a district that’s had core traditional things torn out of its budget,” said Cooper, “to then say, ‘OK, I’m going to limit [the new money] to these very useful strategies, because my basic school has got a giant hole.'”

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