Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett recently unveiled a plan to narrow the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis by cutting state funding to higher education. It’s the biggest change in his $27.14 billion budget from last year: a proposed $1.4 billion, or 20 percent, cut to higher education in the state.
Public education in the state fared better in this budget. Aid to local school districts actually will increase 3 percent this year. However, those extra funds will mostly go to paying pension fund obligations negotiated long ago. In reality, public education funding will remain largely flat. Flat, that is, after the $860 million in cuts that came in last year’s budget.
For some, the changes are a necessary measure to combat the Great Recession. For others, it is a draconian approach to a population- and a public service - in need. Public school officials say Corbett's new public school funding system would create a funding loss, despite his claims that funding would remain level.
How are public schools faring, according to Gary Sasso, dean of Lehigh University's College of Education?
“Further cuts will create nearly untenable conditions for Pennsylvania schools,” he said. “And this is not just about our best students outcompeting children in other nations. Students with disabilities will suffer greatly as well.”
Sasso believes public education, a large item on most state budgets, too often receives blame for social conditions while receiving little acknowledgment for accomplishments. “In the 1980s and 90s - when our country was outperforming every other country economically and educationally - no one came forward to thank our public schools,” he said. “Suddenly, when the economy goes bad, our schools and teachers are the first to be blamed.
“These are the knee-jerk reactions of those who do not understand the role of public education in this country.” We educate every child in this country. When comparisons are made with the school systems in other countries, they data that are used are representative of only a select and high performing segment of their populations.
Sasso reports that public schools in Pennsylvania have struggled mightily just to cope with existing budget cuts.
“In 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, many school districts were able to cut their expenditures with minimal impact on students by adjusting thermostats, deferring maintenance and construction projects, laying off central office staff and eliminating nonessential travel.”
But this year, most districts have had to make cuts that affect students more directly. These cuts include, according to Sasso, teacher layoffs (which increase class sizes), the elimination of extracurricular activities and non-required courses, summer school, field trips, instructional programs and professional development for teachers and staff. Some are even adopting a four-day school week.
“Some districts have managed to trim personnel costs while minimizing teacher layoffs by instituting furlough days, freezing salaries, and reducing health and retirement costs,” said Sasso.
“None of these measures benefit students, teachers, or the education system,” said Sasso. “But they do positively impact the budget. At some point, we’ll find out the price of these hopefully temporary cuts.”
Sasso, dean and professor of the College of Education, has been a researcher, teacher and advocate for exceptional and disadvantaged children his entire career. He focuses on special education and psychology, the philosophy of education and the application of evidence based learning practices.