Facing intense budgetary pressure from the coronavirus pandemic and years of being severely underfunded, a handful of Lancaster County schools received a semblance of hope Wednesday as Gov. Tom Wolf proposed what some school officials say is a long-overdue shakeup of education funding in Pennsylvania.
The democratic governor’s 2021-22 budget proposal, which some Republicans say is dead on arrival, builds on previous education funding increases by calling for a historic, $1.35 billion, or 21.6%, increase in basic education funding. Wolf is also asking for all basic education funding to flow through the state’s Fair Funding Formula that presently is used for new money only. That translates to a $59.5 million, or 32%, boost for Lancaster County schools.
The biggest beneficiaries include Conestoga Valley School District, long regarded as one of the most inequitably funded school districts in the state. The district would see a staggering $10.6 million increase to the $4.8 million it received in 2020-21 — an increase of 221%.
“For years I have been talking about how inequitably funded CV has been, and that the application of the Fair Funding Formula on only ‘new’ monies did nothing to address that inequality, especially when we are in the lowest five percent of the school districts receiving equitable funding from the state,” Conestoga Valley Superintendent Dave Zuilkoski said in an email. “As such, I would not consider this a ‘boost,’ but rather a long-overdue equitable distribution of state funding.”
The massive shift in education funding, if passed, would come after years of disparate school funding, with schools serving predominately low-income and Black students receiving the worst of it.
The Fair Funding Formula, which was created by a bipartisan commission five years ago, seeks to remedy that. The formula considers enrollment, poverty, the number of English language learners in a district and other factors when funding schools. Presently, only 11% of education dollars flow through the formula.
A 2020 analysis from advocates, including School District of Lancaster, suing the state to overhaul Pennsylvania’s education funding system concluded public school children in the commonwealth are being shortchanged by $4.6 billion. Among the most egregious examples, the report says, were Columbia Borough School District, which has a $5,330 shortfall per student, and Lancaster, which is shortchanged $4,510 per student.
Columbia Borough would receive $6.1 million, or 82% more in basic education funding through Wolf's proposal. Lancaster would receive an increase of $19.1 million, or 30%.
Lancaster Superintendent Damaris Rau said Wolf’s proposal is a step in the right direction. The district is facing a $13 million budget deficit this upcoming year.
“Absent new revenues, we will need to make significant programming cuts,” she said. “Additional, sustainable, state funding will help us close this deficit and allow us to make long-term investments in children, particularly through programs designed to close the widening academic gaps resulting from this pandemic.”
Manheim Township, often viewed as a well-off suburban district yet remains underfunded year after year, would see an $8.2 million, or 134% bump, under Wolf's proposal.
“We do feel that the current system of education funding is unequal and underfunded,” Manheim Township Superintendent Robin Felty said in an email, “therefore, we were pleased to hear that Gov. Wolf is proposing that the additional education funding funnel through the Fair Funding Formula.”
But when there are winners, there are often losers.
While the governor included an additional $1.5 billion in his proposal so no school district would receive less funding than the year before, schools that were considered overfunded can count on less of an increase every year if Wolf has his way.
For instance, Solanco, the county’s largest school district geographically located in the rural southern end, would only receive a $257,141, or 2.5%, increase under Wolf’s proposal.
“Clearly the pie is being sliced differently at the state level,” Solanco Superintendent Brian Bliss said, adding that his district could rank near the bottom in the county in state funding yet operate from one of the area’s lowest property tax rates.
With that said, Wolf’s proposal has little chance of gaining traction in the Republican-controlled state legislature, especially because the proposed education funding increase is made possible with a personal income tax hike totaling more than $3 billion. For lower-income families, though, taxes would actually decrease.
"I am deeply concerned that Gov. Wolf is creating a sense of false hope and setting our schools up to be disappointed by proposing such a massive increase in education spending that is completely unsustainable by our current state revenues," said state Sen. Scott Martin, R-Martic Township, who was recently appointed chair of the Senate Education Committee.
“(Republicans) say it’s dead on arrival, no way, no how,” state Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, said. “But … when somebody says, ‘Gee, 60% of my constituents would pay less taxes under this proposal and my schools will be funded.’ Are you gonna be for it or are you gonna be against it? I almost dare some Republicans to say ‘bad idea.’”
Staff writer Gillian McGoldrick contributed to this report.