A Fair Funding Formula for Pennsylvania’s Schools? 
A Fair Funding Formula for Pennsylvania’s Schools?

Last June the Governor signed into law Act 51. This law established the bipartisan Basic Education Funding Commission to make recommendations for a funding formula for school districts in Pennsylvania. The commission is made up of 12 lawmakers evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, including 3 senior aides from Governor Wolf’s office. The Commission, in their own words, has spent the last year holding hearings around the state, gathering testimony and information from experts in the field of education. Their much anticipated report and recommendations are due out in June of this year.
There is broad agreement among legislators, as well as school officials, that the current system for funding public schools is broken. Pennsylvania is one of only three states without a basic education funding formula to distribute sufficient resources to its schools. According to the Campaign for Fair Educational Funding (CFF), a national study determined that Pennsylvania has the widest funding gap between wealthy and poor school districts within the United States. For example, per pupil spending in Pennsylvania’s poorest districts is 33% less than in Pennsylvania’s wealthiest districts. CFF also points out that the state’s overall share of educational funding has fallen to 35% from over 50% in the 1970s.

When you combine the lack of a state funding formula with the effects of state budget cuts in recent years, many school districts have had to cut or curtail programs. Superintendent, James Estep of Mifflin County School Districts states, “I had to recommend the closure of six buildings; consolidation of high schools and the middle schools; the elimination of 83 positions ranging from cabinet-level administration to support staff; and the curtailment or elimination of programs that were valuable to students, such as tutoring and advanced placement classes.” Even with cuts, Estep admits it is difficult to develop a budget without a formula since school districts have to guess at the level of funding they may or may not receive each year.

Although the Basic Education Funding Commission can recommend a funding formula, it must be approved by the legislature and Governor Wolf. Once approved, it must be funded by the state. During his March budget address, Wolf pledged a $500 million increase to public schools to replace the $860 million in spending cuts in 2011.

Advocates for a school funding formula claim that it will help level the playing field for Pennsylvania’s schools by closing the funding shortfalls in all school districts and by narrowing the gap between poorer and wealthier school districts. The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) recommended such a formula as testimony to the Basic Education Funding Commission on November 24, 2014. PASBO’s proposal contains both student-specific factors and district-specific factors that impact a district’s overall state funding. Significant factors include accurate student counts in each school district and adjustments based on the amount of poverty, English Language Learning, and Charter and Cyber School costs. Other factors include household income and tax effort and a scarcity and size adjustment.

If the state’s current “hold harmless” provision remains, it could jeopardize the success of PASBO’s recommendations. As it is today “hold harmless” requires that every school district receives either an increase or decrease in funds. For example, wealthier districts, and those with a declining population, would acquire funds to the detriment of growing and poorer districts that need additional funds. PASBO suggested using a per-student basis calculation to counter the “hold harmless,” increasing state funding as more students enroll in a district.

The question remains. Will Pennsylvania dramatically change its school funding system from one that is archaic and politically motivated to one that meets the individual needs of every school district? I guess we’ll find out in June.
Posted by JBuettler On March 24, 2016 at 9:21 AM