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New school funding formula awaits governor's signature
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted last week to pass amendments to House Bill 1552, which would put in place a new funding formula for schools in the commonwealth.
The amendments add to the Public School Code to allow for a student-weighted formula to distribute funds to schools throughout the state. This formula would take into account student population, poverty, number of non-English-speaking students and the tax strength of the local community.
House Bill 1552 now awaits Gov. Tom Wolf's signature before it can be implemented in the upcoming budget cycle.
"We think the legislation is a historic moment in providing adequate equitable school funding for Pennsylvania," said Steve Robinson, senior director of communication for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA). "We are very excited and look forward to (Wolf) signing it."
Current system: Most individuals involved with Pennsylvania schools agree that the proposed formula is better than the system in place now. In particular agreement is Michael Miller, vice president of the York City school board.
"It certainly is better than the formula than we have now, which is we don't have a formula," he said with a chuckle.
The state currently operates on a "hold-harmless" policy, which was put into place in 1991 and hasn't changed since. The policy gives each school district a minimum increase of 2 percent per year in funding, but this doesn't take into account such things as student population, poverty, local taxes or other factors that could determine how much a district spends.
Because the system is based on population numbers from the 1990s, districts that have 1,500 fewer students now than they did in 1991 are still receiving funding as if that same number of kids was enrolled. Likewise, districts that have increased heavily in enrollment are still operating on a budget based on their much smaller 1991 enrollment rates.
"York (City School District) has had an influx of students," Miller said. "That has made an impact, but it didn't come with corresponding funds. And sometimes the students who move in have higher needs."
The current system does not factor in the cost of resources necessary to work with children living in poverty or with other needs. For example, students who do not speak English as their first language require special teachers, which requires more funds.
In addition, many complain that the current system is unpredictable, making it difficult to plan ahead.
"In the past, the process hasn't been very clear with how funding is given out," Robinson said. "(Schools) can better predict what kind of funding they'll get this year."
The formula: The new formula was originally presented about one year ago by the Basic Education Funding Commission. After 15 hearings over 11 months, the commission presented proposed amendments to House Bill 1552 that would give more weight to factors such as poverty, current student population, the local taxing effort and the number of students who attend charter schools.
"I think it's great," said Rep. Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township. "I've been fighting since I've been in the Legislature to get a new funding formula. Our districts have been shortchanged since 1991."
Saylor served on the commission and worked with other legislators throughout the state to create the proposed formula.
Saylor said that this proposed formula wouldn't go another 25 years before being reviewed. In the wording of the proposal, it requires that every other year the formula be upgraded to account for any changes in the school districts. It also mandates that the formula be reviewed every five years in how it is working for the state.
"Our school districts are ever-changing," Saylor said. "We need to make sure that no matter what the demographics are, it's fair."
Pennsylvania is one of three states that does not have a formula in place for education funding. Many believe that this will help in the disparity between poor and rich schools in Pennsylvania, but there is more work to be done.
"Our children need to be given as (many) resources as a rich district. How else do they compete in the world?" asked Miller. "This will not correct and provide parity overnight, but it's the step in the right direction."
Funding: The proposed formula, of course, can only work if the budget is approved in a timely manner by the state government.
"This funding formula is key in having that fair and equitable funding for schools, but you have to have a budget in place, so we continue to push to make sure we don't have the budget impasse fiasco that we had last year," said Robinson.
In addition, Barbara Goodman, communications director for the American Federation of Teachers of Pennsylvania, stressed that not only is having funding important, but having adequate funding.
"We made a great stride in passing a formula," Goodman said. "That formula will only help if we can get adequate funding, and we all know Pennsylvania is not funding schools the way it should be."
Former Gov. Tom Corbett slashed funding for education by $1 billion, Goodman said, and this hurt the school districts that were unable to make up funding through local taxes, which in turn affected school performance.
"We're hopeful, and we're more confident knowing there's a formula in place, but until we restore funds to all districts and move forward to get state funding where it needs to be, we've only taken half the journey," Goodman said.