A “potentially game-changing school funding lawsuit in Pennsylvania is tentatively scheduled to go to trial Sept. 9, a Commonwealth Court judge ordered” April 1, LNP | LancasterOnline’s Alex Geli reported last week. “The decision comes seven years after the petitioners, which include the School District of Lancaster, filed the initial lawsuit stating Pennsylvania’s education funding system dangerously shortchanges public school students, especially those from low-income communities, in violation of the state constitution. Representing the petitioners are the Education Law Center and Public Interest Law Center.”
We’ve made our stance clear on the issue of fair funding for public schools: It needs to happen and soon.
We’re glad that the legal battle is inching forward, but we don’t believe students in underfunded schools should have to wait any longer to get the educational resources they need and deserve.
Pennsylvania lawmakers have the power to apply their own fair funding formula to 100% of the money they allocate to schools in the 2021-22 state budget.
This — not damaging culture-war battles — is what state lawmakers ought to be focusing on.
Real, not imagined, harm is being done to students in the commonwealth, Lancaster County included, by this underfunding of schools. By failing to adequately educate members of the next generation of Pennsylvanians, we endanger not only their prospects, but the commonwealth’s.
The background: A fair funding formula for Pennsylvania’s public schools was enacted in 2016 after a long process in which a bipartisan group of lawmakers heard from more than 110 school leaders, academics, business leaders, nonprofit groups and parents in 15 hearings around the commonwealth.
Lawmakers, however, only have been willing to partially implement the formula, applying it just to new education funding each year.
They have been clinging to an old funding approach called “hold harmless,” which, as we’ve explained before, means that “schools, once granted a certain share of funding, must continue receiving at least that share. Even if their enrollments decline. Even if their needs can be met by a thriving tax base. Even if the needs of other schools far outpace theirs.”
Gov. Tom Wolf, according to his website, “wants all existing basic education funding, $6.2 billion, plus a $200 million increase,” to flow through the state’s fair funding formula. An “additional $1.15 billion will ensure that no school loses a single dollar in state resources from using the formula,” the governor’s website stated.
Last year, only 11% of state funding ran through the fair funding formula, which determines a district’s share of state dollars based on factors such as enrollment, poverty, tax base, the number of students with limited English proficiency and median household income.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: We’re not sure why state lawmakers went to such great lengths to create a formula they’ve only been willing to partially implement. At some point, they need to fully embrace the formula they created.
And that point, we’d assert, is now. The COVID-19 pandemic has only deepened the needs of underfunded school districts.
We also ask this: Given that a fair funding formula has already been agreed upon and is essentially inevitable, wouldn’t lawmakers prefer to fully implement it now — on their own terms — than have a court dictate the terms of the implementation?
As Lancaster city resident Susan Knoll wrote in an LNP | LancasterOnline op-ed published Wednesday and co-signed by more than 60 others, School District of Lancaster residents watched in March 2020 as other school districts switched seamlessly to online learning. Meanwhile, the city district first had to meet the basic needs — particularly food and safety — of its 11,000 students.
Fewer than a third of Lancaster’s students had access in March 2020 to a device that would allow them to attend class virtually, LNP | LancasterOnline’s Geli reported last week. And elementary students did not get devices until five months later.
The Steinman Foundation helped to provide internet access to city students for virtual learning. (The Steinman Foundation is a local, independent family foundation funded by the companies that make up Steinman Communications; those companies include LNP Media Group.)
“Like all districts in our state with majority Black and Latino populations,” Knoll wrote, “our schools have never been adequately funded,” and so even “in normal times, basic school supplies can be hard to come by.”
Pennsylvania “ranks 47th in the nation for the share of K-12 public education funding that comes from the state,” the nonpartisan newsroom Spotlight PA has reported.
“Most impacted by that,” Geli noted, “are the state’s poorest school districts, which spend an average of $4,800 less per student than wealthy school districts.”
As School District of Lancaster Superintendent Damaris Rau pointed out at a virtual news conference last Friday, poor school districts often have the highest property tax rates.
That’s because they’re forced by state underfunding to raise taxes on resident property owners. And because city school districts tend to have within their boundaries more tax-exempt properties — places of worship and government buildings, for instance — than suburban and rural districts, the burden falls on a relatively small pool of property owners.
Toward ‘true equity’
In February, Spotlight PA published a table showing that School District of Lancaster’s funding would increase by 58% if all public school funding went through the fair funding formula. (The table was based on a state House Appropriations Committee analysis of Pennsylvania Department of Education 2018-19 data.)
Columbia Borough School District’s would increase by 54%.
Manheim Township School District’s would increase by 117%.
Conestoga Valley School District’s funding would increase by 224%.
But Elizabethtown Area School District, Manheim Central School District and Solanco School District would see their funding drop by 11%, 15% and 32%, respectively.
Wolf’s plan would blunt that impact for at least one year, but eventually these districts would get less funding. This would be difficult, we know, but there are districts in Pennsylvania that continue to receive funding for student enrollments they no longer have.
An average shrinking district saw funding increase by $3,200 per student over the past three decades, while per-student funding in an average growing district has increased by just about $1,000, according to a January report from the nonprofit Public Citizens for Children and Youth that was cited by Spotlight PA.
“Black and Hispanic students bear the brunt of the systemic underfunding,” that report noted. “More than 80% of the state’s Black and Hispanic students attend growing school districts.”
This continued underfunding is simply unjust.
We were heartened to learn from a February interview that state Sen. Scott Martin, R-Martic Township and chair of the Senate Education Committee, doesn’t favor the “hold harmless” approach.
He said funding levels should be commensurate with enrollments. And he said “we’ll never have true equity” until the “hold harmless” approach is a thing of the past.
Martin said he’s also a realist who knows he has no “magic wand” that will eliminate “hold harmless.”
But magic isn’t needed here. What’s needed is for enough state lawmakers to gather their courage and vote in favor of increased — and fair — funding for public schools. Martin, whose legislative district includes Lancaster city, is in a position to lead on this.
We hope he does.