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"Education Economy" Continues to Suffer in Pennsylvania

In a new survey about the financial health of Keystone State school districts, the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officers and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators report that while the labor market for Keystone State public school workers isn't as disastrous as it used to be, the numbers will still cause some school funding advocates to gulp.

The two groups estimate that over the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, the state's school districts have eliminated or left unfilled approximately 18,360 positions.

Here's how PASBO and PASA arrived at that estimate. For the 2012-13 school year, 53 percent of the state' 500 districts responded to the survey, and reported a combined 2,090 jobs either left unfilled or eliminated compared to the previous year. Using those numbers to extrapolate, PASBO estimates that 4,200 jobs have been eliminated or left vacant across all the state's districts. You may recall that just over a year ago, my State EdWatch predecessor Sean Cavanagh wrote about the same survey from PASBO and PASA, which reported that they laid off 5,106 employees and left another 3,260 positions vacant, for a combined total of 8,366. Since only about 59 percent of districts responded to the survey last year, the two groups then estimated that the total combined layoffs and unfilled positions totaled 14,160 positions for the 2011-12 school year. Combine the estimates from the two years, and you get the 18,360 figure.

So there were significantly fewer job losses for the 2012-13 year than the 2011-12 year, but they still numbered in the thousands.

As Sean noted in his 2011 blog item, the layoffs and job openings that gather dust don't just affect those who lose employment. They also mean more responsibility that gets handed off to those employees who stay on. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette highlights the fact that $900 million in school funding from the state, much of it federal stimulus cash, was lost in 2011-12 and not restored in 2012-13.

Other numbers related to school district finances show improvement, although not by much in several cases. For the 2012-13 school year, 51 percent of responding districts said they increased class size, compared to 70 percent for 2011-12. But roughly the same percentage of districts said they would reduce elective courses (43 percent this year, 44 percent last year); delay textbook purchases (40 percent to 41 percent); or decrease tutoring (32 percent to 35 percent).

There was actually slight uptick in the share of districts that eliminated summer school, 21 percent this school year compared to 19 percent last year. In addition, there were small increases in the share of districts that delayed building maintenance or delayed new building projects or renovations. Finally, 70 percent of districts reported dipping into reserves to balance their operating budgets for the 2012-13 year, compared to 72 percent in 2011-12 a trend PASBO and PASA say reflects ongoing "serious financial challenges."

The two groups take a potshot at Pennsylvania education officials for emphasizing last month that the results of a state investigation into cheating showed a widespread affect on statewide test scores: "For the state Department of Education to solely attribute the decline in statewide test scores for the nearly 900,000 tests administered statewide to 100 cases of potential wrong-doing is at best disingenuous. We suggest the declines are a symptom of the cumulative, draconian cuts of the past two years."

The share of students scoring proficient or advanced on tests for No Child Left Behind accountability purposes declined 1.4 percentage points in math and 1.6 percentage points from the 2010-11 school year to last year. In a statement, state Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis said: "This is the first year the department can confidently report that PSSA scores are a true reflection of student achievement and academic progress."

On a related note, Texas released its annual financial ratings for districts for the last school year (called School FIRST reports) late last month. Most of the 1,029 public school districts can report rosy news: About 87.5 percent of districts, with nearly 96 percent of the state's total enrollment earned the highest possible "superior" rating from the state department.

But there's an interesting disparity in the rankings. The Lone Star State does a separate report on the state's 191 open-enrollment charter schools. The result? Only 77 of the charters, or 40.3 percent, earned top marks on School FIRST.

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