School funding winners and losers in Pa.’s new $40B budget

Fairfax County Public School buses are lined up at a maintenance facility

Fairfax County Public School buses are lined up at a maintenance facility in Lorton, Va., Friday, July 24, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The $40 billion budget that Pennsylvania lawmakers passed last week includes a $300 million increase for K-12 schools and will give boosts of 10% or more to 35 school districts in every corner of the commonwealth.

It’s the result of a negotiation process that saw partisans grapple over what to do with the commonwealth’s $7.3 billion in federal relief funding, in addition to a $2.9 billion surplus thanks to unexpectedly strong tax collections. Democrats wanted to spend more of the funds immediately on things like education, while Republicans insisted on socking billions away for a rainy day. The resulting compromise between the GOP-controlled legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf was modest compared with the governor’s pitch in February, but well above laast year’s pandemic-era flat-funding, as well as the $160 million increase basic education saw in 2019.

It keeps more than $7 billion of that boosted revenue in reserve, but does include a novel approach to education funding.

In the past few years, the state has routed new education funding through a student-weighted formula designed to give more cash to the neediest school districts, taking into account student poverty and English language fluency, but the bulk of education funding has continued to be divided according to badly outdated enrollment numbers and a “hold harmless” policy.

Some Democrats have been pushing to route all funding through the newer formula, a proposition that would mean some districts — mostly in rural, more Republican areas that have seen population loss — would lose money. Wolf had proposed raising income taxes on higher earners as a way to generate enough new revenue to reroute the entire basic education subsidy through the formula without cutting any districts.

Republican leaders called that plan “dead on arrival” immediately following Wolf’s budget address.

Instead, the compromise Wolf reached with Republicans does something else. It puts an additional $200 million through the formula, and targets $100 million more to the 100 poorest school districts in the commonwealth.

Advocates for more education spending, like the Education Law Center, said that new spending — which the state is calling “Level Up” — is a sign that “our voices made a difference here.”

“While only a one-time measure, by approving this supplement, the state legislature has finally acknowledged the widening gaps and the profound shortchanging of students that remains the norm in the state’s lowest-wealth school districts,” ELS Executive Director Deborah Gordon Klehr said in a statement.

This approach still creates some clear winners and losers.

On a percentage basis, the district with the biggest year-over-year funding increase will be York Suburban — where enrollment has grown rapidly since “hold harmless” was implemented — which will get a 20% bump.

District leaders there, though, still had a complaint. When the student-weighted formula was passed in 2016, it was touted as a bipartisan fix that would bring predictability to year-to-year funding decisions that, in some cases, had come to be seen as inherently political. To some, a special subsidy outside the formula sets the wrong example.

“We are supportive of the Fair Funding Formula and would prefer that all Basic Education Funding went through it,” said Superintendent Timothy Williams.

Rounding out the top ten in percentage increase are Norristown Area SD, Wyomissing Area SD in Berks County, Steelton Highspire SD in Dauphin County, Quaker Valley SD in Allegheny County, Columbia Borough SD in Allegheny County, Lower Moreland Township SD in Montgomery County, Muhlenberg SD in Berks County, Mid Valley SD in Lackawanna County, and Allentown City.

Of the districts with the biggest percentage increases, only half were designated as being among the poorest: Norristown, Steelton-Highspire, Columbia, Mid Valley, and Allentown — which got the biggest Level Up Supplement of the bunch, with $6.4 million.

Allentown’s supplement was second only to Philadelphia’s overall. Philly received $39.5 million of the $100 million. That money, along with a more than $26 million increase thanks to the formula, boosted the city’s school district by $65.8 million, or 5.7% over last year’s state funding.

David Mosenkis, a statistician with the faith-based advocacy group POWER called the Level Up funding “a very small gesture in the right direction.”

But like many advocates who want more education funding, he doesn’t think it’s nearly good enough, especially given this year’s surplus. The governor’s original plan to route all funding through the student-weighted formula would have given Philadelphia a gigantic boost that would have been sustained into the future.

“Philadelphia has been shortchanged by about $400 million for each of the last few years, adding up billions of dollars since the [fair funding] formula was instituted,” said Mosenkis. “I’m not going to criticize. [This year’s compromise] is definitely better than zero. But it is a really far cry from the bold proposal that Governor Wolf had on the table.”

Three districts that would have gotten lower appropriations than last year due to the formula calculation ended up with modest increases, thanks to Level Up money: Connellsville Area, Shenandoah Valley, and Mount Carmel Area School Districts in Fayette, Schuylkill, and Northumberland Counties.

Four districts were flat-funded: West Middlesex in Mercer County, Shade-Central City in Somerset, Bryn Athyn in Montgomery, and West Greene in Greene. And the five that got slightly lower funding were Bristol Borough, Jefferson-Morgan in Greene, General McLane in Erie, Midland Borough in Beaver, and Forest Area in Forest County.

Of those, the funding decreases were all less than 1%, save Forest, which saw its funding dip 1.4% compared with last fiscal year.

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