Fair funding advocates decry Pa. leaders for playing politics with specialty school money

 Erie public school advocates rally in the state capitol in 2016 when Jay Badams (center) was superintendent. (Kevin McCorry/WHYY)

Erie public school advocates rally in the state capitol in 2016 when Jay Badams (center) was superintendent. (Kevin McCorry/WHYY)

For years in Pennsylvania, school funding coming from state government was criticized as being irrational, unpredictable, and too-tied to backroom politics.

That’s a large part of why many celebrated last year when the state adopted a new student-weighted school funding formula built entirely on objective data.

But there are still times when lawmakers throw that objectivity out the window.

Take for instance the $23 million lawmakers agreed to funnel into what they call a “educational access program” in this year’s budget, $14 million of which is earmarked for the Erie School District.

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Erie has had it rough for many years. It serves a large population of poor, needy students, it has a weak local tax base to draw from, and it suffers from a state government that, on the whole, prioritizes funding other relatively better-off districts.

“For us, we’re in the bottom 2 or 3 percent as far as state and local revenue per pupil,” said Erie superintendent Brian Polito. “So we’re still on the losing end.”

In theory, the state’s adoption of the new formula should be a huge boon to Erie. The formula uses objective need factors like poverty levels to allocate state money, and Erie ranks highly on those factors.

But because lawmakers have decided to use the formula only to distribute new funding increases — which so far account for about 7 percent of the state’s largest pot of public school money — the outlook for Erie remains grim.

It shuttered two high schools this summer and, looking forward, is still eyeing a major budget deficit.

But the special $14 million dollar allocation through the “educational access” budget line has the district feeling like it could soon be on stable footing.

“That was our state senator Dan Laughlin really advocating on our behalf for that,” said Polito. “If that wasn’t there, then we’d be able to make it through this coming school year, but we would end up with another multi-million dollar deficit … so the following year would be almost impossible to manage cash-flow wise.”

Laughlin is a freshman Republican senator from Erie County who’s credited with wedging that extra money for Erie into this year’s spending plan, a notably higher amount than his predecessor, Sean Wiley, a Democrat, was able to secure last year.

The Senate is run by Republicans.

This year’s allocation may be very good for Erie, which it can be argued deserves better treatment from Harrisburg, but it begs a question: Doesn’t this violate the spirit of the new funding formula?

“These one-offs are exactly what got us into a rotten spot to begin with. They’re incredibly unfair, and they’re not based on any science other than politics,” said Kelly Lewis, a former Republican state representative from Monroe County who now heads an advocacy group called Equity First.

Equity First pushes for the legislature to use the formula to distribute a larger chunk of state dollars, accelerating the path towards what the formula says would be a more equitable distribution of funding. At the current rate that the state has been authorizing new public school money, it will take almost 30 years for even half of state funding to be distributed fairly.

Ramping up the use of the formula would absolutely benefit Erie, but it would actually have bigger impact in places like Reading, Lancaster, Allentown and Shenandoah Valley, where the numbers say the need is higher.

“Reading school district has a much larger funding deficit for [the basic education subsidy] than Erie,” said Lewis. “And we certainly don’t want to pit Erie versus Reading or any other school district. But that’s just the obvious fact.”

Laughlin declined to comment for this story. Senate Republican leadership defended the idea that sometimes the legislature needs to act to help districts with special money outside of the formula.

“There’s going to be situations where there’s pinch hitting that’s needed,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher.

Senate leaders pointed out that districts receiving educational access dollars will need to appoint a financial administrator who will work with the state Secretary of Education to implement a financial improvement plan.

Kocher praised Laughlin for doing a “great job of presenting the issue,” and noted that Erie School District leaders have been consistent and effective in advocating for themselves in recent years.

Polito’s predecessor as superintendent, Jay Badams, was one of the state’s most forceful voices pushing for greater school funding equity. He departed for another job in New England at the end of last school year.

“Badams was a fixture in the building for two years,” said Kocher.

Squeaky wheels

That sort of squeaky wheel philosophy rubs many education advocates the wrong way.

“Good for them, but here we go again. We’re starting to piecemeal it again,” said Edward Albert, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Small and Rural Schools. “There’s rural schools that don’t have a pot to piss in, and they could be sitting there saying, ‘We could use $2 million. Why can’t we get that?'”

State Rep. David Hickernell, the chair of the House Education Committee, also blasted the maneuver.

“We really shouldn’t be selecting a few special school districts to get bonus money. There’s no transparency there,” said Hickernell (R-Lancaster). “I have nothing against the Erie School District. It’s not about that. I just don’t think it’s the right way to fund schools.”

Hickernell sponsors a bill that would bar the state from doling out specialty payments to school districts. As originally written by the Senate, this year’s educational access funding was set to be recurring. Hickernell successfully fought to strip that language from the budget bill as passed by the House last week. As legislative leaders work to finalize the overall state budget, that provision could reemerge.

Since 2014, lawmakers have authorized nearly $40 million in such allocations through the “educational access” budget line. Funds don’t always go to school districts. Past recipients have included libraries, museums, community centers, historical societies, and a musical theatre.

If Hickernell had his way, he’d use the new formula to distribute all basic education funding.

“I personally would like to see that, but the votes simply aren’t there to make that happen,” he said.

Hickernell is alluding to the fact that there are many districts that have greatly benefited over the years from the state’s “hold harmless” provision, which said districts wouldn’t receive less state aid even if student enrollment declined.

Because the new formula counts actual student enrollment, if it were used to distribute all school money, there’d be an massive redistribution of funding. This would siphon dollars out of many school districts, mostly in Western Pennsylvania, that have experienced population loss.

Scientifically speaking, by the numbers, this would make sense. The state has only limited resources, and the new formula shows clearly how funding should be prioritized.

Science, though, is often not a match for politics. And in this case, the politics have held that implementing the new formula more quickly (or completely) would cause too much pain for too many districts represented by too many lawmakers.

In the meantime, though, many districts like Erie are feeling pinched right now — thus the call for special money.

Michael Churchill, staff attorney with the Public Interest Law Center, says the debate over these special allocations obscures a larger problem. He blames the lawmakers who created the formula for leaving the state in this situation.

“The commission that developed the formula very carefully decided that they were not going to ask how much money was needed,” said Churchill. “And the fallout is that there are a lot of struggling districts, and when the problem gets bad enough, the legislature reacts in a political fashion, and helps those who can cry the loudest.”

Churchill thinks the state should come up with an estimate for what all districts truly need to educate their students, and then work to match that number. His calculations say the state needs to raise another $3.2 billion for public schools.

Under this scenario, almost all districts in the state would receive more school funding — largely eliminating the problem of needing to take from one set of school districts to give to another.

But the new taxes needed to raise that kind of money have made the idea a non-starter in the already cash-strapped capitol.

Churchill believes the court system needs to intervene. The Law Center organized the school funding lawsuit currently being considered by the Pa. Supreme Court.

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