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A week ago, in response to a reference by President Obama to “brutal” cuts to education in Pennsylvania under Gov. Tom Corbett, Republicans shot back claiming exactly the opposite.

Gov. Corbett, said his campaign manager Mike Barley, has put “more state funding to education than any time in our Commonwealth’s history.”

It’s a forceful claim, given the reality of struggling school districts around the state, including the Philadelphia School District, which has cut hundreds of millions from its budget and still approached the new school year facing roughly a $300 million dollar budget gap.

It’s also not exactly true.

The basis for the claim can be summed up in a graphic, developed by the state Republican Party, that’s been making its way around the web, which shows a series of bars depicting “Basic Education Funding” (more on that term in a moment) in Pennsylvania through the Ed Rendell and Corbett years.

Basic Education Funding

The chart comes to us via Keystone Politics, which has its own critique of the Corbett-as-education-funder claim.

On its face, the chart would seem to make the GOP’s point. Under Rendell, the bars got taller every year — but the portion of state dollars allotted to education (represented above in green) didn’t. Starting in 2009, the portion of state dollars paying for basic education funding decreased as it was replaced by federal stimulus dollars (red). In 2010, federal stimulus dollars once again made up a larger proportion of education spending, while state spending decreased again.

As others have pointed out, this was the purpose of federal stimulus money — a temporary infusion from Washington to let state replace certain expenses, like education, with federal money to ease the effects of the Great Recession.

That’s what Rendell did — and that’s why it would appear as if Corbett increased — and not cut — education funding. In terms of raw numbers, Basic Education Funding increased by roughly 4.5 percent under Corbett since its previous high-water mark in 2008 — from $5.2 billion in 2008 to $5.5 billion in 2014.

This is the basis of the state Republican assertion that “more state funding into education than any time” in the state’s history.

But that claim has a few problems, to put it mildly.

  •  For starters, it takes into account only one line-item in the overall budget for education: “Basic Education Funding,” which represents the bulk of education spending but by no means all of it. In 2011, Corbett also made cuts to five other grant programs, including roughly $300 million from two tutoring programs for at-risk students and $224 million from a fund to reimburse school districts for charter school payments. (Since the majority of charters are located in Philadelphia, this meant a drastically disproportionate cut to the Philadelphia School District’s budget — roughly $220 million in 2011.)
  • Those figures alone suggest that Corbett at the most flat-lined education funding; but costs rise due to inflation and and flat-lined spending over four years is in fact a decrease in spending over cost.
  • Even as spending decreases in proportion to cost, it’s decreased in proportion to revenue as well: Pennsylvania brings in significantly more revenue that it did during 2008, the year Corbett’s defenders compare to spending under his governorship. In 2008, Pennsylvania collected $52 billion in revenue; in 2011, the year education cuts were approved, that revenue was up by $4 billion (that’s not counting $4.3 billion in stimulus money). Last year, the state raised $58 billion.  In other words, Pennsylvania is spending less in state money on education both in real dollars as well as in proportion to its revenue.
  • The amount being spent on education under Corbett decreases even more when assessed in terms of “classroom spending,” — dollars going directly to student programming.
  • Much of the purported “increase” in spending under Corbett was due to a legally-mandated increase of roughly $100 million in state payments to the teachers pension fund to make up for a large deficit.

But for most residents, the numbers that matter are the ones pertaining to their own district.

Putting aside the questions of funding statewide, the changes in education funding under the Corbett administration have clearly meant drastic cuts for some school districts, largely poorer ones. As mentioned earlier, most of the dollars from charter school expense reimbursement had been going to the Philadelphia school district.

In addition, the school funding formula, which provided additional money to the state’s poorest districts, was changed this year. The changes were complicated, but they ended up hurting poorer districts while awarding extra money to 21 school districts located in the districts of legislators who were either on legislative appropriation or education committees – a list that did not include Philadelphia.

[Corrected] A study by the Education Law Center, meanwhile, found the most drastic examples of this by comparing the cost cuts to these programs on a per-pupil basis. Where some districts saw per-classroom cuts of less than $2,500, others saw tens of thousands of dollars cut on a per-classroom basis. Philadelphia was among those districts.