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Budget report on Pennsylvania Education Department causes tension, wades into statewide debate

Jessica Kourkounis
Keystone Crossroads

On today’s episode of The Confluence: The state’s Independent Fiscal Office wrote in a report about public education funding stating that there is “little or no correlation” between between funding and student test scores over the course of a single year, but some lawmakers are pushing back against that conclusion; a Pitt researcher asked local kin and foster parents about how the pandemic is affecting their children’s education; and as part of our Good Question Kid! series, we ask, why and how do hyenas eat bones?

Report on state education spending questions whether money affects academic achievement
(0:00 - 8:08)

Gov. Tom Wolf proposed an additional $1.5 billion for K-12 public schools and special education programs in his latest budget.

But a budget report from the state’s Independent Fiscal Office on the Department of Education has some lawmakers debating whether greater school fundingtranslates to improved student achievement.

“[The report] said there was ‘little or no correlation’ between those two, between school districts … spending and students' performance on standardized tests. That's a finding that I think comes with a lot of caveats, and the fiscal office has emphasized a lot of this,” says Charlotte Keith, a reporter for the independent, nonpartisan newsroom SpotlightPA.

The report analyzed standardized tests and spending for the 2018-19 school year, which is another caveat, says Keith.

This report also comes at a time when state leaders and education officials are being sued by six school districts, several parents, and a couple of advocacy groups who allege the state is violating its own constitution by not fairly and equitably funding poor school districts.

“Rep. Matt Bradford, who's the Democratic appropriations chair in the House, wrote a letter basically saying, you know, this question of the relationship between school funding and student performance is very complicated,” says Keith, describing how lawmakers have pushed back against this finding. “He basically said, firstly, this was beyond the scope of what the fiscal office is supposed to be doing, and also that other researchers have found very different conclusions when they've looked at this.”

The legislative board to whom the report was given, the Performance-Based Budget Board, ultimately voted to table the report and discuss their concerns later.

“Lawmakers are asking, you know, should there be something else in these reports or asking for other things to be included asking for some changes? That's not unusual as part of this reviewing of state agency spending,” says Keith. “I think what's unusual here is just that this touches on something that's already long been a very contentious issue in Harrisburg, and it kind of blurs the line a bit between, you know, the fiscal office's responsibility to look at state spending and whether that's effective, but not to get into policy analysis or making policy recommendations.”

How pandemic impacts foster youth in the county
(8:12 - 17:00)

We already know that the pandemic has been particularly challenging for students and young children. For the county’s approximately 1,500 children in the foster care system who sometimes have to maneuver between foster parents and blood relatives, it has been even more so.

In a First-Person essay for PublicSource, Mary Elizabeth Rauktis described her research and interviews with foster families about the difficulties their students are facing in the pandemic. Rauktis is a licensed social worker and research associate faculty at the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Generally speaking, child welfare is a pretty face to face encounter. So we didn't have that, that had to get set up,” says Rauktis. “Children were missing visits with their siblings, .. they couldn't see their parents or parents couldn't see them. As we were isolated, they were isolated.”

Rauktis says studying past pandemics and climate events can give researchers some indication of how youth are being affected, or what they might experience in the years to come without intervention.

“[Researchers] looked at the 1916 polio epidemic data, and what they found was that during that time, because schools closed and what happened is older youth never went back to school,” says Rauktis. “They found that youth that dropped out during the polio pandemic and just went straight into the workforce, without getting a high school diploma, made less in earnings and savings over a year.”

During interviews with local foster parents, Rauktis says many talked about their struggles to help school-age students with remote learning. Foster youth were also cut off from in-person mental health services they usually accessed through school.

Although the impacts are clear, Rauktis says it’s possible to help students get back on track, with efforts like one-on-one tutoring.

“Now that all children have experienced this in the last couple of years, … we should be viewing this as a public health intervention by putting more trauma focused resources into school for all children,” says Rauktis.

Why and how do hyenas eat bones?
(17:04 - 22:30)

We’ve been asking families for questions, those very good questions that a kiddo in your life might have, but leave you scratching your head.

Today we’re answering from Gavi, who asks, “Why and how do hyenas eat bones?”

Kay Holekamp, a professor at Michigan State University, studies free-living spotted hyenas. She says hyenas eat bones because bone marrow is very nutritious!

“Hyenas have unusually strong jaws,” says Holekamp. “We actually fed [captive hyenas] some leg bones of cows, but they could still eat an entire leg bone of a cow in 13 minutes. So, they just crunch it all up and swallow all the pieces, and then their digestive system is so strong that it dissolves the bone, and then when they poop, it's bright white because it's got so much bone in it!”

If a kid in your life has a good question, you can fill out our form or send it to

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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