Views on ‘equity’ clash in new Pa. school funding formula

    A student raises his hand at Isaac Sheppard School in Philadelphia. (File image by Jessica Kourkounis)

    A student raises his hand at Isaac Sheppard School in Philadelphia. (File image by Jessica Kourkounis)

    One advocacy group says proceeding as planned will continue to shortchange many school districts.

    Education advocates across Pennsylvania are celebrating the fact that the state is about to commit to a new student weighted formula for distributing state aid.

    But not everyone is happy.

    One advocacy group says proceeding as planned will continue to shortchange many school districts.

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    For the past few weeks, Kelly Lewis has been crisscrossing the state trying to help certain school districts understand just how unfairly they’ve been treated by the state for the past 25 years.

    At an Irish bar on the main drag in Wilkes-Barre, he spoke to a smattering of parents and business leaders.

    “What happened is, districts that saw population increases, like the Poconos — Pocono Mountain, East Stroudsburg, Stroudsburg, they grew tremendously over the last 25 years — they didn’t get one red cent,” he said. “City school districts saw poverty levels go up tremendously; they didn’t get one red cent for an increase in poverty.”

    Lewis is a former Republican state representative from the Pocono Mountain area who is now chairing an organization called Citizens for Fair School Funding, which has been pushing an advocacy campaign called “Support Equity First.”

    With the exception of a few years under Governor Rendell, since 1991, the state has not had a systematic formula for dividing state education money that actually acknowledged changes in enrollment.

    This week, though, a major breakthrough came that was lauded by the lionshare of advocates.

    The General assembly came to an agreement on a new formula that will count actual enrollment, plus a number of other factors including student poverty, local tax effort, district sparsity, and the number of students learning English.

    Governor Tom Wolf says he will sign it.

    When Lewis’ group ran the entire pot of state education aid through that formula, it saw in real numbers what many have known for a long time: not counting those factors has severely impacted many schools.

    “That formula, black and white, recognizes that some school districts have been vastly underfunded, and we believe that they should be made whole,” he said. “That’s called fairness. That’s called being human. That’s called trying to fix a broken system.”

    Most cities win big

    Lewis’ group made its calculations based on budget proposals that didn’t pan out last year.

    Keystone Crossroads did its own analysis and had similar findings. Moving forward, 150 of the state’s 500 districts would see increases if all of the’s state’s basic education subsidy were run through the new formula.

    City school districts with stable enrollment would get huge boosts next year if this were to happen. Philadelphia would receive an added $319 million — by far the biggest increase. Reading ($93.3 million), Allentown ($57.3 million), York ($42.9 million), and Lancaster ($41.8 million) round out the top five.

    Wilkes-Barre — which saw the school board vote Monday night to lay off dozens of teachers and make programming cuts — is not far behind.

    “I just got so sick of reading about it, that I had to come out and see what these people are saying,” said Christina Solomon, a Wilkes-Barre parent.

    The Support Equity First presentation in Wilkes-Barre fired up Solomon. She heard about the districts that have benefited over the years by not seeing funding drop even when enrollment decreased — a practice known as “hold harmless.”

    “I understand they have problems too and they’re afraid this will happen to them,” she said, “but it has to be equal. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

    The cuts in Wilkes-Barre were driven by a $4 million budget gap. If all money went through the formula, it would receive almost six times that next year.

    New money

    But no one, not even Lewis’ group, is advocating for all funding to go through the formula. That would essentially suck the money out of many other districts, leaving them decimated.

    Largely based on enrollment declines, Pittsburgh would lose more than $65 million. Altoona would lose more than $12 million.

    Instead, lawmakers intend to apply the formula only to new money. If enough comes online, that will ease inequities over time. More than 50 advocacy groups have come together to call for $400 million dollar increases 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,” said Charlie Lyons, spokesman for the Campaign for Fair Education Funding.

    Not all superintendents buy that logic.

    “That assumes, I think, terribly unrealistic expectations as to the amount of overall education funding that will be granted,” said Erie superintendent Jay Badams, testifying before the House education committee on Thursday.

    The structural budget deficit in Erie is forcing leaders to contemplate sending high school students to other nearby districts for the betterment of the kids.

    Even if advocates get the money they seek, Badams says it will still take too long for the formula to really make a difference.

    This past school year, $150 million was distributed through the student-weighted formula. That means about 2.5 percent of education funding was “fair” according to the formula; the rest was not.

    “This is like a person who is dying of thirst in the desert being promised a gallon of water, but being given that water one drop a day. You know the result: there’s no way that person would survive.”

    Badams agrees with the proposal outlined by Support Equity First, which calls for 75 percent of any new money to go to the districts that the formula says have been most shortchanged — accelerating the path to equity.

    Because of the way the formula’s metric works, the number of eligible districts would change each year depending on demographic and economic shifts.

    In the coming year, under that proposal, 150 districts would get 75 percent of the funding. The other 350 districts would split the remainder.

    That idea was codified into a bill this week authored by State Rep. David Parker, R, Monroe, and was the topic of Thursday’s committee hearing.

    Parker’s district has seen skyrocketing property tax bills in recent decades.

    “Hold harmless has forced us to overtax our taxpayers and essentially subsidize taxpayers in other districts who are benefiting from the hold harmless provisions of the current funding process,” said East Stroudsburg chief financial officer Jeffrey Bader.

    Mainstream advocates dissent

    Outside of a handful of lawmakers and a few superintendents, the Support Equity First proposal has gotten zero traction among policy makers and influential advocates.

    Statewide groups that represent administrators, school business officials, school boards and teachers all testified against it Thursday.

    “All we’re saying is that we’re all in need,” said Eric Eshbach, Superintendent of the Northern York Area school district, and a top official of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

    Many advocates have taken Support Equity First to task for their use of the terms “over” and “under” funded.

    Eshbach says the formula, as written, was not meant to determine who’s been underfunded. That can only be done by setting a benchmark for what “adequate funding” means, which the commissioners who wrote the formula specifically refused to do.

    “PASA believes that except for a handful, school districts do not have sufficient resources to provide the programs and services necessary to support every student to meet or exceed state mandated levels of achievement.”

    Advocacy groups also object to the fact that the Parker bill would help not just highly needy districts, but also wealthy ones where enrollment has spiked.

    “So it may be Robin Hood to some degree. It may be reverse Robin Hood to another degree,” say Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.

    That dynamic, though, is baked into the formula itself, no matter how it’s sliced.

    When it was applied to new money this year, the biggest percentage boosts came to those wealthier districts. The top 50 by percentage boost included Upper Dublin, Great Valley, Radnor, Haverford, West Chester, Abington, Springfield, North Penn, Parkland, Wyomissing, Fox Chapel, and South Fayette — all of which are in the upper tier of median household income.

    If Parker’s bill became law, some of the poorest districts in the state, where enrollment has dropped, would lose out. These include: Albert Gallatin, Windber Area, Shamokin Area, Titusville Area, Mount Carmel, Wilkinsburg, Duquesne and Forest Area.

    Kelly Lewis says this dynamic shouldn’t disqualify the Support Equity First position.

    “At some level, there has to be a blind eye to justice. The math has to come into play. You do your poverty levels. You do your enrollment. You run a formula,” he said. “And there has to be at some point, everyone puts their hands in the fire and says, ‘Whatever that formula says, whatever that calculation is, we’re going to follow it.'”

    The politics underlying this debate can’t be ignored. The statewide advocates have members from districts across the commonwealth, and more have something to lose than gain in Parker’s bill.

    And legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle — clustered in the central and western areas of the state — also represent more districts that would fare worse in the deal.

    Although Philadelphia would do very well in the proposal, the city’s often vocal advocacy bloc has remained silent.

    But there are no two ways to slice it: the formula bill approved by lawmakers this week asks the neediest, most stressed districts in the state to wait longer for equitable funding.

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