Fair-funding advocates praise new formula, but stress the need for more money

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

A group of advocates Wednesday called on the General Assembly to increase state education funding next year by $400 million.

That is the amount proposed by Gov. Wolf in his budget, but it is likely to get pushback from a Republican legislature that has been loath to raise taxes.

The Coalition for Fair Education Funding praised the legislature’s adoption of a state education funding formula in the fiscal code, after five years without a predictable way for distributing education aid. But they declared that this was just a first step in bringing resource equity and adequacy to the state’s 500 school districts.

"We have to recognize, as the American poet Jerry Garcia observed once, ‘every silver lining has a touch of gray,’" said Jeff Garis of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. "The funding formula that we have, while it is great, ultimately is only going to be as effective as the funding that is put into it."

The advocates plan to descend on Harrisburg on Monday, May 2, the first day of business after Tuesday’s primary.

The formula adopted in the fiscal code was recommended by the bipartisan legislative Basic Education Funding Commission. Gov. Wolf allowed it to take effect without signing it. He wanted the legislature to first restore cuts made to school districts in 2011 before adopting the new distribution formula.

The legislature rejected that option however, the final breach in a disastrous year that saw a protracted impasse over education aid between Wolf and the Republican-led General Assembly. As a result, districts went without needed funds and many, including Philadelphia, borrowed money to stay afloat and also cut programming.

The coalition supported Wolf’s position, but said that there are other ways for districts hit hard by the cuts to be "made whole." Philadelphia was the biggest loser, absorbing about a quarter of the $1 billion in reduced state funds starting in 2011. The failure this year to adopt Wolf’s preferred distribution method cost Philadelphia about $35 million.

Those ways include restoring other education line items that were eliminated from recent education budgets, including reimbursement to districts for costs associated with the proliferation of charter schools and block grants that were mostly used to reduce class size and improve literacy instruction in early grades, and for tutoring.

"We supported the governor’s plan to restore cuts and then use the formula to distribute funds next year," said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children & Youth. "All the statewide groups were in favor of that. … So the legislature could fully fund the resources we’re suggesting through the basic education formula and also remediate the cuts by restoring funds to those essential state-funded programs."

Though the adoption of the formula is a step in the right direction, it still has problems, the advocates said. Primarily, it applies only to new money, not to the total of basic education aid.

The new money will be distributed taking into account the poverty level of individual students as well as the concentration of poverty in a district, the presence of English language learners, local tax base, and local tax effort.

It will also be tied to actual enrollment trends, which has not been true for several decades with the bulk of state aid sent to districts. A "hold harmless" clause guaranteed that every district would not get less than they received the year before, regardless of whether their enrollment decreased.

At the same time, the increases in any given year were never predictable, largely decided behind closed doors.

"We are especially pleased that the era of backroom deals that delivered new funding to schools based on the whims of powerful legislators … is over," said Susan Spicka of Education Voters PA. "It is high time districts get money based on their needs [instead of] based on the power of the legislators representing their districts."

Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center said that "the formula is much fairer than no formula." It will begin to distribute money in a way that is fair to poor districts and starts to count how many students there are, he said.

"The problem is that it is only as good as the money it applies to, and it only applies to the new money. There is a lot of locked-in inequity, and until the state starts to put sufficient dollars in, it isn’t going to fix the problems that Pennsylvania has."

The law center put out a report showing that most districts are still reeling from the cuts and showing how they would use the additional funds.

"The thing that is most notable is that districts are still needing money for very basic matters: textbooks, librarians, teachers, in particular, maintaining kindergarten and pre-K classes," said Churchill. "Full-day kindergarten was cut in some school districts."

Advocates statewide are planning to descend on Harrisburg on Monday, May 2, to press their case with legislators. Churchill and the others said they were hopeful that, unlike this year, Wolf and the General Assembly would actually pass a budget by the June 30 deadline.

"The public was really clear how harmful the delay was," he said. "Some of the money didn’t even get in in time to be used. I think one thing the politicians do not want to do is to have to run in November without having a budget passed on time this year."