Rendell: Education investments ‘moved the ball forward’

The departing governor thinks his targeted spending increases will live on, but worries about survival of the school funding formula.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Gov. Ed Rendell will leave office in a few months confident that he “dramatically moved the ball forward” to improve education in Pennsylvania.

He cites a new funding formula more closely based on student need, rising test scores, more early childhood education, expanded full-day kindergarten, tutoring for more than 100,000 students, and programs to improve schools’ use of technology.

At the same time, he is worried that a Republican takeover of the governorship and both houses of the General Assembly could put the legacy of his eight years at risk.

“If the Republicans have both the governorship and both chambers of the legislature, then I think education funding is in real jeopardy,” he said.

The former Philadelphia mayor is confident, though, that there are some things Republicans won’t be able to reverse. One is the investment in pre-kindergarten and other targeted initiatives like science education and tutoring, distributed to districts each year through Accountability Block Grants rather than through the basic education formula.

“Targeted funding … is probably where we had the most impact,” Rendell said. Before his administration, he said, “We were one of only nine states that did not put a dime into pre-K education, which was just insane.”

Today early childhood education is more available, and there is a state quality-rating system called Keystone STARS. Seventy percent of districts have full-day kindergarten, up from 33 percent.

He points to rising scores on the state PSSA test as evidence of the effectiveness of his initiatives, including the additional dollars, the targeted approach, and the focus on early childhood. According to data compiled by his office, the districts in the state that received the biggest dollar increases showed the greatest reduction in students scoring “below basic” on state tests, especially in math.

This contradicts those who believe funding doesn’t matter, the governor said.

A report by the Center on Education Policy, a research group in Washington, DC, concluded last year that Pennsylvania was the only state where scores on state tests improved in both reading and math at all grade levels between 2002 and 2008.

No second-guessing

During an hour-long interview with the Notebook about his education policy and achievements, Rendell was his blunt and colorful self, free of any second-guessing about where his priorities might have fallen short or gone awry.

He said he fully agrees with the Obama education agenda, which relies heavily on promoting charter schools and holding teachers accountable for results, including through the use of student test scores in their evaluations.

“I think it’s a good agenda,” he said. Providing some federal dollars through competitive grants to states that show willingness to adopt certain favored reforms, Rendell said, “is a good idea.” Pennsylvania, however, lost out on getting the biggest of these grants, called Race to the Top.

At the same time, Rendell lambasted school vouchers, which have been endorsed in different degrees by both men running to succeed him, Republican Tom Corbett and Democrat Dan Onorato. Giving taxpayer money to families for use in private schools was also the top education initiative by his predecessor as governor, Republican Tom Ridge.

“The problem with vouchers is not that they don’t work, but they only work for a small percentage of students,” Rendell said. “And if you had the voucher system, you’d be taking the kids with the most focused parents out of the system, and then ignoring the other 92 percent of kids in public education.”

By contrast, he said, his administration “set out to value public education and value our teachers and try to improve the entire funding process.”

But his goal of significantly increasing the state share of education expenditures and bringing all districts to adequate spending levels hit a major snag due to the recession.

“The recession is really a bummer,” he said, “because without it, I think we would have been two-thirds of the way to meeting the ‘costing–out’ study.”

That 2007 study weighed student characteristics, including poverty and English-language status, and concluded that 474 of the 501 districts weren’t spending enough to give all their students an adequate education. It estimated that an additional $4.4 billion was needed.

Rendell didn’t sugarcoat the potential fiscal crisis facing the Commonwealth next year, when a large chunk of federal aid goes away and huge pension obligations come due, and with a recession still ravaging tax revenues. He guesses that it will take at least until 2016 or 2017 to reach state adequacy targets identified in the costing-out study.

Rendell said education advocates should consider it a “victory” next year if state education aid stays the same, because that means the governor and the legislature will have plugged the hole left by the departing federal stimulus money.

Revenue strategies

Rendell has proposed various ways to raise revenues to avoid a cataclysmic shortfall in the state budget next year. He said Corbett “should have his head examined” for vowing not to raise taxes and also criticized Onorato for declaring that the state’s two biggest revenue raisers, the personal income tax and the sales tax, were off limits.

As for legislators, he called them “scared little rabbits” for failing to consider anything that could be construed as a tax increase – refusing even to close some archaic sales tax loopholes or enact a natural gas severance tax, as he had proposed.

And while he himself is a seasoned political player and not above rewarding his friends, he blamed special interest groups and lobbyists for stalling any meaningful tax reform or revenue bills. The list of arbitrary exemptions from the sales tax costs the state tens of millions of dollars, he said.

“The reason that we are the only state not to tax either smokeless tobacco or cigars is because in a key Republican senator’s district, there is a cigar manufacturer,” he said.

Such sales tax exemptions, he said, “make absolutely no sense. For example, if you go to a movie, and you buy candy and gum, you don’t pay sales tax, because someone has convinced the legislature that candy and gum are food. But if you go to the movies and buy popcorn, you do pay a sales tax. …The popcorn industry did not have a very good lobbyist.”

Rendell said that advocacy groups stood behind him in fighting for an increased state investment in education and made some headway with Democrats, but not with Republicans.

But he added that he was “particularly disappointed in the corporate leaders.”

He said these leaders would “give lip service, saying that education is the most important issue for them, because they wanted to have an educated workforce. And then when Republicans in the Senate turned them down, they continued to write checks to them.”

Until these leaders stop writing checks to legislators who don’t support education funding and tell them why, “we’re not getting anything done. … I’ve attempted to tell corporate leaders that their politics have to have consequences.”

Politics aside, the economy ultimately will determine the future of education funding in the Commonwealth, he said.

“We have to hope that economic growth returns in a fulsome way by the second year of the new governor. That growth, which I believe will happen, will then be the key for education spending.”