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PA Public Schools: Fewer Students But More Spending

Public school enrollment is dropping in Pennsylvania, but education spending is at an all-time high, according to a state watchdog group. And that trend appears likely to continue as Democrats, including Gov. Josh Shapiro, have signaled support for increased spending on education.

At the same time, the state awaits a decision in a landmark case that could transform how public schools are funded.

According to the Commonwealth Foundation, public school enrollment has dropped by about 120,000 students since 2000. And a recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics, first reported by Axios, showed the trend isn’t isolated to Pennsylvania.

Public schools across the country lost more than a million students between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2020.

In the commonwealth, the Center found that the losses were particularly acute, with public school enrollment dipping about 5 percent over the same period, a downward spiral projected to continue through 2030.

Meanwhile, as enrollment declined, taxpayers were asked to spend more on public schools. As a result, Pennsylvania’s per-pupil costs soared to nearly $20,000 in the 2020-21 school year, the Commonwealth Foundation found, citing the most recent available data from the state Department of Education. That figure, ranking Pennsylvania eighth in the U.S., is about $4,000 more than the national average.

In some Delaware Valley communities, taxpayers are spending more than $30,000 per student.

Per-pupil figures for the 2021-22 school year will be available in April, a state DOE spokeswoman told DVJournal.

Most recent figures show per-pupil costs swelled in the Bensalem school district by nearly 25 percent since the 2011-12 school year, up from $16,975 to $20,921.

In the wealthier New Hope-Solesbury district, they jumped from $20,216 to $31,217 over the same period. The Philadelphia school district, by comparison, saw more modest increases, from $13,166 to $18,753, the data shows.

Representatives from the Pennsylvania State Education Association didn’t respond to a request for comment on school spending.

Why is it costing so much more to teach $100,000 fewer students? Nathan Benefield, vice president for the Commonwealth Foundation, pointed out that over the same period enrollments declined, the number of employees working at public schools rose by nearly 9 percent.

The state added about 20,000 employees over that period and saw a 40 percent growth among administrators.

Data previously reviewed by DVJournal showed the number of full and part-time teachers employed for the 2020-2021 school year increased to 123,461 from 119,790 in 2015-16.

Benefield juxtaposed those jumps with more students “increasingly looking for alternative options” to public schools.

“Instead of continuing to fund buildings and bureaucrats, Pennsylvania taxpayers should directly help students,” he said. “If students leave their assigned school for better educational opportunities, their portion of education funding should go with them.”

Across the country, U.S. school enrollment fell from 50.8 million students in 2019 to 49.4 million in 2020, while enrollment in private and charter schools rose, Axios reported. And the number of homeschooled students doubled to about 5 million.

Advocates for increasing taxpayer spending on shrinking classrooms argue that more money will improve educational outcomes. However, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores in Pennsylvania have been flat or falling for nearly a decade — a trend exacerbated by the failure of the remote education strategy used during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2019, 81 percent of Keystone State students scored at or above the basic benchmark. By 2021, that number had fallen to 76 percent.

So will school spending decline to match the ongoing trend of falling enrollment? Not likely. During last year’s campaign, Gov-elect Josh Shapiro pledged to spend more money on K-12 education in the future.

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Don’t Allow Energy Development, Lose Your Share of the Revenue, Senate Committee Says

You might call it the “Little Red Hen” law.

In the children’s story, none of the barnyard animals got to eat Little Red Hen’s delicious bread because they refused to help her make it. Advocates for Pennsylvania’s fossil-fuel sector have proposed the same approach for counties — often with Democratic leadership — that won’t help the state develop its energy economy.

By an 8 to 3 vote, the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy (ERE) Committee voted to prohibit counties that have banned natural gas development within their borders from receiving the county share of impact fee payments and the Marcellus Legacy Fund drilling funds.

“It makes no sense if you ban drilling on land that a county owns then turn around and hold your hand out and want funds from the very source that you say, ‘We’re banning,’” said Sen. Gene Yaw (R-District 23) chair of the commitment and the author of the bill (SB 1331). “If you ban it then you can’t reap the benefits.”

All three “no” votes were from Delaware Valley Democrats.

The impact fee generated a reported $234 million in 2021. up more than 60 percent from 2020’s $146 million. The only year close to last year’s amount was 2018 when the Public Utility Commission (PUC) announced collections of $252 million. 

“County and municipal governments directly affected by drilling will receive a total of $123,217,163 for the 2021 reporting year,” the PUC reported in June. “Additionally, $86,030,934 will be transferred to the Marcellus Legacy Fund, which provides financial support for environmental, highway, water, and sewer projects, rehabilitation of greenways, and other projects throughout the state.”

The top receiving counties for 2021 were Washington, Susquehanna, Bradford, Greene, Lycoming, Tioga, and Butler. 

Yaw said he is seeking to provide what he called “a little bit of consistency,” and to make counties wake up and say, “‘We have to pay attention to how our land is used, and we can’t just make a blanket ban and say no.’”

The bill passed with just one Democratic vote, from Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Bethlehem).  Minority Chair Carolyn Comitta (D-West Chester) said she was a “no” even before the vote was taken. 

“Local leaders who want to protect their natural resources, parklands, and communities from the potential dangers of fracking should be able to do so without being penalized,” said Comitta. “Furthermore, I do not believe it’s fair to withhold all of this funding simply because fracking is not permitted on certain lands, and in some cases these areas account for a very small percentage of overall county land.”

As a result, Comitta said the bill seems like a heavy-handed approach to what is a local control issue. She also noted that while the natural gas industry appears to want all the land opened to fracking and drilling permits for unconventional wells expedited, data shows many wells that are permitted are not even drilled. 

Yaw said the bill “has nothing to do with fracking,” but is instead a preventative action to put every county on equal footing.  “One of the purposes of this legislation is to preempt problems down the road” when it comes to natural gas infrastructure.

And, natural gas advocates note, there have been other attempts at restrictions, such as restricting the ability of builders to provide natural gas hookups in new construction.

Sen. Katie Muth (D-Chester) was also a “no” vote. She expressed concern that counties banning fracked gas development would not be eligible for their share of the impact fee even if they have truck traffic from the industry. Pointing to Allegheny County as one example, Muth said there are multiple landfills there that take fracked gas waste. 

Yaw and the other Republican members of the committee were unmoved. Yaw even made it a point to say there is a total lack of understanding of what is happening in the natural gas development field. 

“Nothing prohibits a county from controlling by contract what happens on their land,” said Yaw, just before taking a vote. “They just can’t have a knee-jerk reaction and say, ‘everything is banned,’ (so) they have to think about it.”

The bill will now be submitted to the full Senate for consideration. 

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