HARRISBURG — With a single sentence slipped 15 pages into an otherwise dry budget report on the state Department of Education, an independent tax watchdog has embarked on a heated and deeply politicized debate about the links between funding schools and student performance.
In a section of the report analyzing the relationship between Pennsylvania public school spending and student performance on standardized tests in a single year, the state’s Independent Fiscal Office concluded: “The data suggests there is little or no correlation.”
The question of what this actually means – and whether it should remain in the document – has sparked tensions within the council holding hearings on these reports.
For Democrats, the report’s language appears to echo arguments Republican legislative leaders have made in the ongoing landmark lawsuit over how Pennsylvania pays for public schools.
The plaintiffs, including six school districts, argue that the state’s heavy reliance on local property taxes to fund public schools creates large funding gaps between rich and poor school districts, discriminates against children in low-income areas, and violates the state constitution.
Republican leaders argue that giving struggling schools more funding would not necessarily improve outcomes.
Tax office reports are generally non-controversial and approved quickly. This time, a bipartisan majority of board members voted Jan. 26 to table the report after state Rep. Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, the chairman, raised concerns about his claims. and its methods.
In a letter to the finance office, Bradford said the report included data errors and went too far in its statement about the relationship between spending and test scores – a topic he says needs statistical analysis. complex that goes beyond the responsibilities of the finance office.
Academic research has established a clear link between government spending and school performance, according to a 2016 review of scholarly papers cited by Bradford.
“The available evidence leaves little doubt,” the review by a Rutgers education teacher found. “Sufficient financial resources are a necessary underlying condition for providing quality education.”
In 2015, a state education funding commission chaired by two Republican lawmakers noted that “latent inequalities in the system” – such as some districts with more students living in poverty or learning English – also explain why some districts spend different amounts to achieve similar results.
By law, the Independent Tax Office must review the spending of all state agencies every five years and tie each budget line to performance measures — intended to allow lawmakers to focus on ineffective programs. The process began in 2017 and is the first time the finance office has looked at the Ministry of Education.
The finance office doesn’t make policy recommendations, but it does try to highlight trends or findings that are important to lawmakers, said agency director Matthew Knittel.
In this case, the finance office compared a year’s worth of data on school district spending per student with the proportion of students achieving proficiency on standardized state tests, finding “little or no correlation” between them.
Knittel insisted that is not the same as saying — or even implying — that state spending has no impact on student outcomes. “Our job is just to present the data and make observations,” he added.
When asked why the report only looked at data from the 2018-19 school year, the most recent available after standardized testing was canceled due to COVID-19, Knittel said it was already doing 63 pages and the analysis of expenses in relation to the skills of the pupils. “wasn’t meant to be a deep dive.” The report noted that school districts with a smaller proportion of low-income students tend to perform better on standardized tests.
While Republicans control most legislative committees, the Performance-Based Budget Council is made up of the four caucus appropriations chairs and the budget secretary, giving Democrats a majority.
State Rep. Torren Ecker, R-Adams, who is a House Republican nominee to the board, was the only member to vote against tabling the finance office report, saying: “I don’t believe we have the ability to go back and say, ‘Well, we don’t like those facts. “” He then accused Democrats of “trying to hide what the IFO found,” although the report is still available online.
In a statement, House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said the lack of correlation between spending and student skills is “a position I have repeatedly expressed and is currently being argued in state court.”
Earlier this month, Cutler’s attorney entered the finance office’s report into evidence in the school’s funding lawsuit and asked a witness to read the disputed paragraph in court. He later withdrew both, saying he wanted to avoid a line of questioning that would touch on privileged legislative conversations.