Gov. Wolf calls for drastic school funding shake-up in surprise announcement

Governor Tom Wolf speaks at an event at Roosevelt Elementary School in Philadelphia Friday. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

Governor Tom Wolf speaks at an event at Roosevelt Elementary School in Philadelphia Friday. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

Governor Tom Wolf called for a major change to the way Pennsylvania funds schools Friday, advocating for the state to distribute its largest pot of school money in a way that would benefit the majority of students in the state, but would likely cause deep cuts in many districts.

During questions at a press conference in Philadelphia, Wolf said the state should push all basic education money through the formula it adopted two years ago.

The formula takes into account things like poverty, actual student enrollment and tax effort, and has only been used so far to distribute increases in state education funds since 2015 — only 8 percent of the total.

Wolf’s remarks seemed unplanned, as the event of the day pertained to new money for lead paint abatement in the School District of Philadelphia.

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“We need a fair funding formula for all dollars going into public education,” Wolf said in response to a question from Keystone Crossroads.

Wolf later affirmed that he was advocating for a complete formula-based distribution of dollars.

“Yes. Yes,” he said.

The revelation surprised advocates and opponents alike.

“We really are excited about this public statement, and we hope he makes this a centerpiece of his campaign,” said Rev. Gregory Holston, executive director of the faith group POWER, which has been lobbying for a more aggressive implementation of the formula.

When the Pennsylvania General Assembly adopted the formula in 2016, there was major bi-partisan support. Key to that harmony was the idea that the formula would only apply to new money, allowing changes to be phased in slowly over time.

But critics such as POWER have pushed the state to move faster. And, apparently, Wolf now agrees.

Money driven through the formula tends to benefit poor, urban school districts that haven’t seen a precipitous drop in student enrollment. If Wolf’s idea becomes reality, Philadelphia, Reading, Allentown, Greater Johnstown, and York would be among the big winners.

Other districts in growing areas of the state would benefit as well.

But Wolf’s idea would have major negative repercussions in many other shrinking districts, especially in the Western and rural parts of the state.

So while most students attend school in districts that would benefit from driving more money through the formula, most of the actual districts would lose out — more than 300 in all.

“You’d end up having school districts around the state possibly going bankrupt, but definitely shutting down schools, and you’d have kids without schools to go to,” said Steve Miskin, spokesperson for House Republicans.

Miskin called the governor’s stance “irresponsible.”

Tricky politics

Wolf did not elaborate Friday whether he’d support a sudden shift in how the formula is applied or if he’d prefer a staggered approach.

One bill introduced earlier this year in the legislature called for all education funding to run through the new formula. Its sponsor, State Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, was at the press conference and seemed surprised by Wolf’s remarks.

“I was thrilled to learn that the governor is supportive, conceptually, of the basis of my bill,” said Rabb. “We have to have the political will to make that happen.”

Governor Tom Wolf greets State Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

Rabb’s proposal isn’t the only one percolating in Harrisburg.

State Reps. Tom Quigley, R-Montgomery, and Tim Hennessey, R-Chester, floated a bill that would ramp up use of the formula over the next five years. Their colleagues, Martina White, R-Philadelphia, and Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, also introduced a plan to send all basic education money through the formula.

All four Republicans are from the Southeastern part of the state, where population has grown. There’s also bi-partisan support for the idea in the Poconos and other growing parts of the state.

The School District of Philadelphia would receive an extra $339 million annually if all basic education money went through the formula. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, would lose $73 million in funding.

And that’s where the politics get tricky.

Could Wolf garner sufficient support from the Western and rural areas of the state — including among lawmakers in his own party — to build momentum for the idea?

Many Democratic leaders in Harrisburg represents districts that have lost student population and have been buoyed for years by the legacy of “hold harmless.” That provision implemented in the early 1990s ensured districts received at least as much money as they did the year prior.

Wolf’s idea would essentially kill the lingering impact of hold harmless.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, who represents parts of Pittsburgh, initially told Keystone Crossroads, through a spokesperson, he supported Wolf’s push. After publication of this article, the spokesperson updated Costa’s position, saying Costa “is still reviewing the Governor’s proposal and needs to fully evaluate the impact to all the schools in his district.”

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, who hails from Allegheny County was similarly cautious.

“That’s something that will have to be discussed,” said spokesman Bill Patton. “It certainly bears consideration.”

Patton added later in an e-mail:

“Fighting over how to cut up the existing pie of state funding for basic education is not the solution; making the pie bigger while reducing the reliance on local property taxes is the solution,” he said.

Wolf, who is seeking reelection in November, appeared in Philadelphia to announce his administration will give $7.6 million to the School District of Philadelphia to help it remove lead paint in 40 schools this summer.

A recent investigative series from the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News revealed significant toxic hazards in several city schools. The district says it has more than $4 billion in unmade repairs, the result, officials say, of aging buildings and insufficient resources.

Philadelphia joins Erie, Allentown, and Scranton among distressed urban school districts that have recently received one-time injections of cash to fix urgent problems. Those type of quick fixes wouldn’t be necessary, Wolf said, if the state leaned more heavily on its funding formula.

“In the long run, the real solution is a fair funding formula…and adequate and fair funding for all of our schools all across the commonwealth,” Wolf said.

Wolf’s announcement comes a week after he and the General Assembly agreed on a budget for 2018-19 — the first signed, on-time budget of his tenure. The formula distrobution proposal was not raised publicly during those negotiations.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify State Sen. Jay Costa’s stance on Wolf’s proposal.   

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