OPED: Education funding formula doesn't go far enough

MICHAEL CHURCHILL, Public Interest Law Center

While politicians and advocates are celebrating the legislature’s passage last week of a student-based, fair funding formula for distributing new school funds, it is important to understand this truth: our school funding system is as unconstitutional today as it was last week. Nowhere is this reality more evident than in York City schools.

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 Much about the formula is worthy of praise. Among other things, it will thankfully end the era in which funding went to districts based on close relationships to the leadership of the General Assembly. And in distributing new money to districts, it will use accurate information about the number of students and their needs, giving extra funds for students in poverty or learning English, and giving extra help to districts with lower capacity to raise money locally. This is a decided improvement.

 But the formula is only a baby step towards what is needed.  It does not address the inadequate amount of funding available to districts struggling to meet state-set proficiency standards. It does not address — and in fact makes permanent — the vast inequities that exist from district to district. It never asks what schools need in order to meet state standards. 

What the formula lacks led to the current harsh reality in Pennsylvania: If districts don’t have enough state support, the burden falls to local taxpayers to make up the difference. More than anything else, it is this central fact which leads to Pennsylvania’s school funding status as the most inequitable in the nation: wealthy districts can easily raise the amounts needed, poor districts cannot, and the resources a student has depend on the zip code in which he or she is born. This was our reality before the fair funding formula was passed, and it is our reality now.

This state of affairs must be measured against the state constitution’s Education Clause, which requires that the legislature “support” schools, which at a minimum requires they have the resources necessary for students to meet academic standards set by the state itself; and the state constitution’s equal protection clause, which requires there be a rational basis for any difference in public funding between districts.  The Commonwealth’s failure to live up to these constitutional mandates is why we represent parents and school districts from across the state in a fair funding lawsuit, and why that suit is as vital as ever.

Gov. Wolf signs fair funding formula

The way the new formula locks in inequality can be seen by looking at the impact on the York City School District. Last year the District received $57 million from the state for basic education. The formula, however, says York City — with three quarters of its students in poverty and 1,450 English language learners — should be receiving 1.79 percent of the $5.7 billion spent on basic education funding, or about $102 million per year, an increase of almost $45 million per year. But because the formula will apply only to new money, that $45 million shortfall is permanent. On a per student basis, it leaves York City as the most underfunded district in the entire Commonwealth, with no way out.

But even $102 million of funding does not tell you what York City actually needs to teach its nearly 8,000 students: that would only be its share of the present level of state education funding. According to a report by the Public Interest Law Center issued earlier this month, using the funding formula’s own numbers, the state needs to invest $3.2 billion more in education to enable all districts to meet the needs of their students. On that basis, York City needs, at minimum, $159 million per year, or close to three times the funds it currently receives. Providing that funding to districts like York City would not only give them the resources they need, it would fix both of our constitutional deficiencies by giving children the educational opportunities they deserve, no matter where they live.

 It is a positive development that the legislature is committed to distributing funding in a fairer manner than before. But the absence of any commitment to increasing the funding to the level needed or even to redressing the current unfair distribution of state funding means advocates cannot cheer too loudly. Until the Commonwealth provides school districts adequate funds to meet the actual cost of providing the teachers, books, computers, counselors, nurses and other resources necessary for students to meet state standards, the system will remain unconstitutionally deficient.

— Michael Churchill is of counsel for the Public Interest Law Center.