Harrisburg Happenings: April 27, 2016
Fair Funding Matters
I recently submitted an op-ed to the Erie Times-News regarding the need to implement the fair funding formula in our Commonwealth, and I'll elaborate a bit more here.
Pennsylvania is one of three states without a comprehensive formula by which education funding is distributed across our school districts. Our state has a shocking number of high-poverty schools with a per-student spending amount that is thousands of dollars less than for their wealthier neighbors. A class of 25 students in a wealthy Pennsylvania district spends almost $80,000 more than that same class in a poor district.
How is it acceptable that the quality of a child's education is tied to a zip code? How has having textbooks become a luxury in many districts?
Operating without a funding formula translates into shameful problems locally. Decades without a formula haven't been kind to Erie's Public Schools (EPS), digging a mammoth hole of over $6 million at the end of the 2015/16 fiscal year. EPS enrollment perennially hovers around 13,000, and they spend 80 percent less per student than the rest of this Commonwealth.
City of Erie homeowners already bear one of the highest tax levies in Erie County. Over 40 percent of the city proper having nonprofit status creates a loss of taxable properties. Erie's median household income is one of the lowest statewide. The district also has one of the highest percentages of low income students; plus an abundance of English as a second language learners, and cyber and charter student obligations. EPS spends tens of millions of dollars per year to educate students at area charter schools where there is also no formula instituted to regulate per-student spending.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly created the bipartisan Basic Education Funding Commission (BEFC) through Act 51 of 2014 with the goal of developing a funding formula to equitably distribute the basic education subsidy across all districts. After more than 11 months, 15 hearings, and testimony from experts, members of the BEFC learned about fair funding from a cross-section of the educational community – including Dr. Jay Badams, who painted a very clear fiscal picture specific to EPS.
In June 2015, the BEFC provided a recommendation to the General Assembly to adopt a new formula, setting Pennsylvania on a path toward responsible investment. That formula would mean $1.3 million in additional funding for EPS, $173,000 for Millcreek Township School District, and $35,000 for Iroquois School District, with every school district across Erie County seeing an increase should the formula be applied.
Members of the General Assembly seem to agree that the formula needs to be implemented, but the devil is in the details. In this case, those details concern implementation methods. Some feel that recent cuts must first be restored and a higher funding floor maintained. Others cite the present as the best time to utilize the formula.
The implications of inaction are immediate and real. They are felt by every student, teacher, parent, and citizen. They are woven into the strength of Pennsylvania's economy and our ability to compete in the national and global marketplace. The bipartisan commission did its work in developing a responsible, equitable formula; it is now time to pass the formula into law and get on with restoring our schools.
The recent passage of the law authorizing the medicinal use of cannabis shows bipartisan cooperation is possible. The most liberal of liberals worked side by side with staunch conservatives to adopt life-changing legislation. The same must be done to ensure responsible investment in the future leaders of Pennsylvania.
A quote by one of the greatest American presidents, John F. Kennedy, is fitting here: "Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future."
Senator Sean D. Wiley can be contacted at SenatorWiley@pasenate.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @SenatorWiley.