What is the purpose of the Pennsylvania Basic Education Funding Commission?

Fourth graders in a summer reading program at West Philadelphia High School. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Fourth graders in a summer reading program at West Philadelphia High School. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The day before the deadline in mid-June, the commission said they needed more time to come up with recommendations for a new formula to distribute state funding for basic education to Pa. school districts.  

The day before the deadline in mid-June, the Pennsylvania Basic Education Funding Commission said they needed more time to come up with recommendations for a new formula for distributing state funding for basic education to school districts.  In this installment of Multiple Choices we explain the role of the commission.

The commission was created to recommend to the General Assembly a new formula for distributing state funding for basic education to Pennsylvania school districts. It was established by law in June 2014, when former Gov. Tom Corbett signed legislation sponsored by Rep. Bernie O’Neill, R-Bucks.

Most states have predictable, enrollment-based funding formulas to distribute state education aid with the aim of increasing equity among districts. Pennsylvania instead distributes its basic education aid, which totaled $5.5 billion this year, based on a mixture of precedent from previous years and the results of lawmakers’ lobbying for individual districts.

Who is on the commission?

Twelve legislators (six Republicans and six Democrats) serve on the commission, along with three state officials. It is chaired by two Republicans, Sen. Patrick Browne of Allentown and Rep. Mike Vereb of Montgomery County. Former Gov. Tom Corbett originally appointed three members, who have been replaced with the change in administrations. Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera, Secretary of Planning and Policy John Hanger, and State Budget Secretary Randy Albright will represent the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf. The legislative representatives remain the same.

What has the commission done so far?

The commission held its first hearing in late August. It held the last of 14 hearings for late February.

Some hearings have been broadly focused, allowing for input on the funding formula from superintendents, academics, school board presidents, and representatives of business, community, and nonprofit groups. Other hearings have been targeted to address funding issues specific to rural schools, the Philadelphia school district, and charter schools.

The first six hearings did not include public comment periods. However, after an open letter and the threat of a nonviolent direct action protest in Philadelphia by interfaith organization POWER, the Basic Education Funding Commission incorporated public comment periods into its agenda for hearings held after Nov. 18.

When will the commission publish its recommendations? The commission is required to publish its findings by the end of this month. During the Philadelphia hearings, the commission was urged to complete its work by March instead of June so that a new formula could be considered by the legislature in time to affect the 2015-16 budget, but that did not happen.

Despite some advocates’ hopes, the commission will not use its research to set a state funding adequacy target. It will propose changes to the formula, not the dollars behind it.

What will happen next?

After the commission’s recommendations are made public, the legislature and Gov. Wolf will determine whether or not to enact them into law.

Prior history indicates that the work of such commissions do not become the final word. Some recommendations from a comprehensive 2008 study of school district funding needs were implemented for two years under former Gov. Rendell, but ultimately discarded by the Corbett administration.

Last year, the legislature adopted some changes for new special education funding as recommended by a Special Education Funding Commission. However, the changes affected only $20 million out of the $600 million total allocation for special education. The goal of this commission is to revise how all basic education aid is distributed.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of the article has been updated to reflect that some recommendations from a 2008 study on school district funding were implemented under Gov. Rendell. 

About this series: Multiple Choices is a collaboration between Keystone Crossroads and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, an independent, nonprofit source of education news. The project is funded by a grant from the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia.

In the Multiple Choices podcast, Keystone Crossroads senior education writer Kevin McCorry joins with Paul Socolar, publisher and editor of the Public School Notebook, and Notebook contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa to explain and explore the history, complexities and controversies of public education funding in Pennsylvania.

Look for new installments of Multiple Choices every week for the rest of the spring, as the General Assembly reviews Gov. Wolf’s ambitious school funding and tax plan.

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