Joining vast majority of states, Pa. adopts school funding formula

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    The House and Senate have agreed to lock in a plan that Governor Wolf says he’ll sign.

    Pennsylvania will soon join the overwhelming majority of states that have a student-based formula for distributing state education funds.

    The House passed the measure with a large majority Wednesday. The Senate did so last week.

    For much of the past 25 years, the state has largely divided it’s main pot of education money based on the principle that districts should never get less than the prior year.

    Over time, because the state didn’t track real-time changes to enrollment, poverty levels, and other factors, this has created huge inequities — favoring districts that have lost enrollment but have not had to endure requisite funding decreases.

    In addition to actually counting enrollment trends, the new formula — which was authored by a bipartisan commission — seeks to improve things by acknowledging that educating certain students costs more.

    Districts will receive a greater share of funding based on how many of its students live in poverty, how many attend charter schools, and how many are learning English. The formula also recognizes that sparse, rural districts face added costs based on transportation and other factors.

    It also gives a boost to districts where the local taxpayers are making a large effort as compared to their median household income.

    Lawmakers, though, are only planning to apply the formula to new increases in state aid. In context, this year the state added $200 million to a $5.48 billion pot.

    Charlie Lyons, spokesman for the Campaign for Fair Education Funding, says equity will come eventually if enough new money is pumped through the formula. His group is pushing for $400 million boosts annually for eight years.

    “The combination of the formula and the additional dollars is going to be able to bring us to the point where all those school districts are going to have sufficient resources,” he said.

    Governor Wolf says he will sign the bill. Previously, he had fought to delay implementation of the formula, wanting first to restore districts most hurt by cuts made under former Governor Tom Corbett.

    “There is more work to be done to restore funding and further address distressed districts. We are hopeful we will reach a compromise in the 2016-17 budget,” said spokesman Jeff Sheridan.

    The new formula was used this year to distribute $150 million in new state aid (the other $50 million was distributed unilaterally through Wolf’s restoration plan).

    In terms of total dollar amount, Philadelphia, Reading and Allentown received the most funding through the student-weighted formula.

    In terms of largest percentage boost compared to the prior year, wealthier districts that have seen population growth were the biggest winners. The top three were Conestoga Valley in Lancaster County, York Suburban, and Wyomissing Area in Berks County.

    The Education Law Center, a member of the campaign, echoed the call for added investment statewide.

    “While this formula is a major step forward for equitable public education funding, it will only be effective if the General Assembly appropriates sufficient dollars to fund our schools. Currently the legislature is woefully underfunding our schools, in violation of the Pennsylvania constitution,” said executive director Deborah Gordon Klehr in a statement.

    Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners executive director Mike Wang offered a more measured reaction to the bill’s passage.

    “While this formula is a big step forward for Pennsylvania, money and a fair system for distributing it is not enough to ensure every student receives a great education,” he said in a statement. “We now encourage the legislature and the governor to pass necessary reforms — particularly measures that ensure accountability for students in struggling schools.”

    Another advocacy group, Support Equity First, has been pushing for the legislature to allocate most of the new money in coming years to the districts that, according to the formula, have been historically shortchanged.

    Within the same bill which codified the formula, the legislature did provide special funding allocations to two of the state’s 500 districts. Following a court order, lawmakers directed an additional $12 million to Chester-Upland. Wilkinsburg, which will send middle and high school students to Pittsburgh in the Fall, recieved an added $3 million.

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