Budget report on Pa. education agency provokes spat between lawmakers, watchdogs | State

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Harrisburg, Pennsylvania – In one sentence, enclosed in a 15-page dry budget report on the State Department of Education, an independent fiscal overseer entered a heated and deeply politicized debate over the relationship between school funding and student performance.

In a report analyzing the relationship between Pennsylvania public school spending and standardized student test scores over one year, the state’s independent fiscal service concluded, “data show little or no correlation.”

The question of what this actually means – and whether it should remain in the document – has caused tensions in the panel that holds hearings on such reports. For Democrats, the language in the report seems to echo the arguments that Republican lawmakers have led in the current landmark lawsuit over how Pennsylvania pays for public schools.

Plaintiffs, including six school districts, argue that the state’s heavy dependence 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 providing more funding to schools with difficulty doesn’t necessarily improve results.

Fiscal management reports are usually consistent and approved promptly. This time, on January 26, January 26, a majority of council members voted to submit the report after state chairman Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery), chairman, expressed concern about his allegations and methods.

In a letter to the Fiscal Authority, Bradford said the report included errors in the data and went too far in its assertion about the relationship between costs and test results – a subject he said requires complex statistical analysis that goes beyond fiscal management responsibilities.

Academic research has found a clear link between government spending and school performance, according to a 2016 review of scientific papers cited by Bradford. “The available evidence leaves no doubt,” said Rutgers, a professor of education. “Sufficient financial resources are a necessary prerequisite for quality education.”

And in 2015, the State Commission for the Financing of Education, chaired by two Republican lawmakers, noted that “inequalities hidden in the system” – for example, in some areas where there are more students living in poverty or learning English – also explain why some counties spend different amounts to achieve similar results.

By law, the Independent Fiscal Authority must review the expenditures of all government agencies every five years and link each budget item to performance indicators, so that lawmakers can focus on inefficient programs. The process began in 2017, and the fiscal service conducted an audit of the Department of Education for the first time.

The report on the education budget provokes a quarrel between legislators and supervisors

The fiscal department is not making policy recommendations, but is trying to highlight trends or outcomes that are important to lawmakers, said Matthew Knitel, the agency’s director.

In this case, the fiscal service compared school district spending per student per year with the proportion of students who achieved knowledge on state standardized tests, finding “little or no connection” between them.

Knitel insisted that it was not the same as saying – or even hinting – that government spending did not affect student performance. “Our task is just to present data and make observations,” he added.

Asked why the report only considers data for the 2018-19 school year, the latest available after standardized tests were canceled due to COVID-19, Knittel said it is already 63 pages, and a cost analysis compared to students ’qualifications“ there shouldn’t have been a deep dive. ”The report notes that school districts with a lower proportion of low-income students tend to do better on standardized tests.

While Republicans control most legislative committees, the Performance-Based Budget Council is made up of chairmen of four groups and a secretary of the budget, giving Democrats a majority.

Republican MP Thorne Ecker (R., Adams), a member of the Republican Council of Deputies, was the only member to vote against the Fiscal Administration report, saying: “I don’t believe we have the opportunity to go back and say, ‘ Well, we don’t like those facts. ” He later accused Democrats of “trying to hide what the IFO found”, although the report is still available online.

In a statement, House Speaker Brian Cutler (R., Lancaster) said the lack of correlation between costs and student qualifications is “a position I have stated many times and is currently being challenged in state court.”

Earlier this month, Cutler’s lawyer introduced a fiscal management report as evidence in a school funding lawsuit and asked a witness to read the challenged paragraph in court. He then recalled both, saying he wanted to avoid lines of interrogation that would affect privileged legislative talks.

This story has been updated to clarify that the fiscal department’s report examined the total expenditures of public schools, both public and local.

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