Schools

THE ISSUE

A bipartisan proposal in the state House would make a significant change in the way the state allocates funding to Pennsylvania schools, LNP staff writer Alex Geli reported Friday. House Bill 2501, authored by state Rep. Christopher Rabb, a Democrat from Philadelphia, would require all basic education funding allocated by the state government to flow through the fair funding formula approved in 2016. As Geli noted, “Since the 2015-16 school year, only increases in basic education funding have been appropriated through the formula, which takes into account factors such as enrollment, poverty and the number of English language learners when funding schools.” State Rep. Mike Sturla, a Lancaster Democrat, is co-sponsoring Rabb’s bill.

When the Basic Education Funding Commission unveiled its fair funding formula for Pennsylvania’s public schools in 2015, we were enthusiastic supporters, not least because of the way it came to be.

Members of that bipartisan commission heard from more than 110 school leaders, academics, business leaders, nonprofit groups and parents in 15 hearings around the state.

And heaven knows, Pennsylvania needed such a formula. The commonwealth had gone without one for more than 25 years.

But the state General Assembly applied it only to annual increases in basic education funding, not to all state dollars going to schools.

According to LNP, just 8.8 percent, or $539 million, of the state’s nearly $6.1 billion basic education allotment currently flows through the formula.

Because it was applied to such a small percentage of state education funding, it didn’t do much to narrow the gulf between the commonwealth’s neediest and most affluent schools. Which is why six school districts, including the School District of Lancaster, are among the petitioners in a lawsuit against state officials arguing for equitable funding.

Here’s the dilemma: If the fair funding formula was to be applied — as House Bill 2501 proposes — to all basic education funding, some school districts would surely benefit. But others would be hammered.

According to an analysis by the House Appropriations Committee, the bill would shift $1.17 billion from 357 school districts to the 143 school districts with the most need.

This outcome only could be prevented by a massive infusion of dollars into basic education, and that isn’t going to happen any time soon.

Friday’s LNP offered the tale of two county school districts: Conestoga Valley School District would receive more than $10 million in additional funding — a 224 percent increase — or $2,349 more per student, according to LNP calculations.

On the other end of the spectrum, Solanco School District would see its state funding slashed by 32 percent — a decrease of $904 per student.

That “obviously would be catastrophic to our students and community,” Solanco Superintendent Brian Bliss told LNP.

Though his district would benefit from the measure, Conestoga Valley Superintendent Dave Zuilkoski expressed concern over its potential consequences.

“We need to make sure that … implementing the formula as presented minimizes the negative impact on districts while maximizing the needed financial resources to those that are underfunded,” Zuilkoski said.

He is right, of course.

And we suspect that even Rep. Sturla knows it.

Rabb’s bill has just 10 sponsors, including Sturla and Rabb. It was introduced in June, but it’s likely to languish in the House Education Committee.

There are only 10 voting days remaining in the legislative session. To enact the formula completely, lawmakers would need to eliminate the so-called hold harmless clause from the formula legislation that states that no school district should receive less money than it did the year before. That’s not going to happen, especially in an election year.

Sturla acknowledged to LNP that House Bill 2501 is a “drastic measure,” but he’s hoping it will spark conversation.

“We’ve spent so much time without a fair funding formula, people get numb to the pain,” he said, citing the discrepancies in funding between some school districts that “were living high off a hog when other school districts were begging.”

By all means, we should talk about the inequities that persist in education funding in Pennsylvania. And we should seek realistic measures to fix those inequities.

But let’s also talk about the growing weight of property taxes on senior citizens.

The state share of education funding stood at 55 percent in 1974. In 2016-17, the latest year for which figures are available, it was less than 37 percent.

To make up the difference, school districts have raised property taxes year after year, and thus the burden has been shifted to local folks.

It’s possible to acknowledge the unfairness of this, while also acknowledging the injustice of inequitable school funding. While also appreciating the importance of quality public education not just to schoolchildren, but to anyone who enjoys the benefits of a fully functioning society and economy.

Saturday marked the 150th anniversary of the death of Thaddeus Stevens, the great lawmaker and abolitionist who championed the cause of public education in Pennsylvania. He believed fervently in the importance of education for all. (So it’s fitting that his grave lies adjacent to a public elementary school.)

We believe in it, too, and hope to see Pennsylvania get it right on school funding before too long.

House Bill 2501, though, is akin to the shot of a flare gun — a sort of distress signal that will draw plenty of attention but is destined to vanish into the ether.