A Republican state representative says Democrats are trying to bury a report from the state’s independent budget office over a single sentence that said better funding in school districts doesn’t always lead to better testing outcomes — at least not for the one particular year the report’s authors examined.
“The data suggest there is little or no correlation between the current expenditures spent per student and the share of students that score proficient or above on standardized tests,” the report from the Independent Fiscal Office noted.
Although other data and context comes with that claim, it’s the kind of sentence that could easily find its way into political debates and campaigns, especially as the state supreme court is set to rule sometime this year on a major school funding case.
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Pennsylvania’s Independent Fiscal Office (IFO) conducts performance-based budget reports for a small number of agencies and other items that impact the budget every year. In January, it released its report on the state Department of Education.
Once a report is released, it goes to the Performance Based Budgeting Board — sometimes called the IFO board — that generally gives a pro forma approval of the IFO reports, according to Rep. Torren Ecker (R – Adams). But rather than give the usual blessing, approval of the report was tabled.
“Clearly they are trying to hide what the IFO found,” Ecker said in a press release. “Its independent review of the state’s education system convincingly shows that funding levels and student performance do not necessarily relate to each other.”
Ecker further told Broad + Liberty there have been occasions when members asked for more information or clarity, “but there’s never been a direct vote to actually table the report before the IFO actually presents it to the board — and that’s what happened [Wednesday, Jan. 26] for only this report for the department of education.”
The Performance Based Budgeting Board is not a standard committee like others in the Pennsylvania legislature. Currently, the IFO committee is chaired by Democrat Rep. Matt Bradford (Montgomery), whereas normally any legislative committee would be chaired by a Republican because of their majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly. Ecker said the chair of the board rotates evenly between Democrats and Republicans.
“Chairman Bradford kind of tiptoed around the real reason why he wanted to table it,” Ecker added. “I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but generally paraphrasing him, he said that he wanted to receive more information and, and have ongoing conversations — digest the report.”
Bradford’s office did not comment to Broad + Liberty directly but did provide a letter his office sent to IFO Director Matthew Knittel shortly after the meeting where the report was tabled.
While also making other points, Bradford did highlight the sentence on testing outcomes in the letter to the IFO.
“This causal claim cannot be supported by a simple bivariate relationship,” between spending and testing scores, Bradford said. “In reviewing the best research practices from the existing literature on this topic, this fundamental question is beyond the scope of this performance-based budget process as it requires significant further analysis.”
Knittle defended the sentence.
“The report did not make a claim of causality, and it is important to note that from a statistical perspective, correlation does not prove or disprove causation,” he said in a response letter to Bradford.
“The observation only applies to that specific year [fiscal year 2018–19] and it does not apply to historical trends over time or outcomes in other years. Put another way, the one-year snapshot suggests that school districts that spent the same amount had different student outcomes as measured by standardized test scores. It does not imply that spending had no impact either in that year or over time.”
House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) weighed in, highlighting the political stakes around a single sentence.
“I am disappointed by the actions of the committee to delay the unbiased and important work of the IFO,” Cutler said in a press release. “The report states there is no correlation between dollars spent and student proficiency, a position I have stated many times and that is currently being argued in state court. Attempting to block, delay or change this report now is a blatant attempt to deny these facts from being available to the public.”
Meanwhile, the political Left has been making hay with another IFO report on a tax credit for charter schools.
Also in January, the IFO released a report with criticisms of Pennsylvania’s education tax credits, especially where gauging performance was concerned. Under that law, many businesses can create tax deductions when they fund scholarships to private schools and a limited number of other educational programs.
“The statute should be amended to allow for the collection of student performance and demographic data so that program effectiveness can be evaluated,” that report noted. “Across states, Pennsylvania has one of the largest tax credits, but collects and publishes the least amount of outcome data.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports