Clergy and public school advocates from around Lancaster County piled onto the porch of state Sen. Scott Martin’s new district office in Strasburg to urge the Republican lawmaker to use his Senate Education Committee chairmanship to ensure equitable funding for the state’s public schools, a goal the advocates called a “moral imperative.”
“Regardless of politics, regardless of ZIP code, shouldn’t all our children be educated with the same sources of funding?” said Elder Gerald Simmons of Faith Tabernacle Church of God in Christ in Lancaster city. “Isn’t every child’s education precious in the sight of God? Then let’s be fair.”
POWER, a Philadelphia-based interfaith organization with branches across the state, organized the rally in Strasburg to call on the state’s elected leaders to fully embrace a “fair funding formula” for public schools.
“We will not stop, we won’t sit down, we won’t shut up until something happens to benefit the children of this state, especially Black and brown children in Columbia and Lancaster city, who learn in substandard conditions,” said The Rev Patricia McAllister of Mt. Zion AME Church in Columbia. “Their schools are in disrepair, they’re financially neglected. … As people of faith, we are moved by this great need to stand up, to speak up because we cannot remain silent.”
The advocates want all of the state’s education spending allocated through the fair funding formula, which was enacted in 2016 and currently only applies to new school spending dollars. That formula assesses whether a school is located in a rural area, if the area has high concentrations of poverty, and if students are native English speakers, among other criteria. The goal is to direct more funds to schools with higher needs that also serve communities without robust tax bases.
The biggest impediment to realizing the full benefit of the formula is a 1990 policy that says no school district should receive less money than it did the previous year, a move benefiting schools in areas with declining populations — mainly in western Pennsylvania. Since 1992, more than 300 school districts collectively lost 167,000 students since yet still receive more than $590 million tied to 1992 enrollments, according to a January report from nonprofit Public Citizens for Children and Youth.
The 1990 deal was a boon to some schools, allowing them to rely more heavily on state funds than local taxes to keep schools running. On the flip side, schools in faster growing areas of the state were forced to raise property taxes to make up for the slow growth in payments from the state education budget.
In 2020, only 11% of the $6.2 billion the state spent on education went through the fair funding formula. The rest — $5.5 billion — was allocated based on 1992 student enrollment data.
In his February budget address to the Legislature, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed running 100% of his proposed $6.4 billion in education spending through the fair funding formula. In addition, he proposed increasing the personal income tax by 46% to collect an additional $3 billion in revenue, $1.15 billion of which would be used to level funding for districts that would otherwise lose money by using the formula. This historic tax hike is a non-starter with the GOP-controlled Legislature, Martin said.
Tough political sell
Damaris Rau, superintendent of the School District of Lancaster, said at Monday’s rally that the current way the fair funding formula is applied hurts the district, which she said would see its share of state funds increase by more than $17 million if the formula applied to every education dollar.
Sen. Martin said he met with POWER representatives last week and told them that he and other lawmakers from central and eastern parts of the state agree with their position.
Fourteen of the 16 school districts in Lancaster County would benefit from applying the fair funding formula to more of the state’s education spending, Martin added.
“It’s a geographic problem, not a political one,” said Martin, who was in Harrisburg Monday. He said he and his allies need to recruit more support from legislators representing western Pennsylvania districts, or wait until after the reapportionment process due ahead of the 2022 election shifts more of the power in the legislature toward faster-growing parts of the state.
Martin said his Education Committee role leaves him out of the annual budget negotiations between the Legislature and governor. But the advocates who gathered in Strasburg on Monday say they want Martin and other lawmakers to figure out how to fully fund school districts no matter the political sacrifices.
“I’m seeing children getting screwed by this where I work and where I live,” said Steven Heffner, a high school math teacher in the School District of Lancaster and parent in the Ephrata Area School District.
“If we really think that our community, our constitutional republic hinges on an educated citizenry, that means we’ve got to educate everybody,” Heffner said. “Otherwise, our politicians really don’t believe in it.”