Debate on fair formula for Pa. education has local flavor
Aug. 23, 2014 – By Evan Brandt, The Mercury – The effort to find a fair formula for funding education in Pennsylvania is coming to Montgomery County.
Last Sunday, Gov. Tom Corbett addressed the issue during an unannounced visit to Pottstown, and on Thursday, The Mercury learned that state Rep. Mike Vereb, R-150th Dist., who heads up the education funding formula commission, intends to hold one of the meetings somewhere in the Perkiomen Valley School District.
The Basic Education Funding Commission held its second meeting Wednesday in Harrisburg and Vereb says he wants to meet in different parts of the state to be sure regional issues are included in the discussion.
The next meeting will be in the Lehigh Valley, followed by one in the Perkiomen Valley and one in Philadelphia, he said.
Having organized itself at its first meting last month, the commission — which is charged with making a recommendation for an educational funding formula by next June — got down to business last week.
“We’re starting to get into the meat and potatoes,” Vereb told The Mercury.
It’s a meal made of data — and quite a bit of it — Vereb said.
According to published reports, Wednesday’s meeting included a quick appetizer of debate on the “hold harmless provision;” a helping of history from the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, who outlined the different formulas Pennsylvania has used over the years; a side dish of the factors that go into determining how much each district should get; and a basket of how a district’s “wealth” should be determined and even a desert of asking whether whether funding should follow the teacher instead of the student.
“Yesterday was all a bit overwhelming, there’s a lot of information to absorb,” Vereb said.
“How do we look at it?” Vereb said of education funding. “Do we look at it on a per-student basis; on a per-classroom basis? on a per-school-district basis?”
Corbett is on the same page.
Standing in Riverfront Park on the banks of the Schuylkill River, Sunday, Corbett boiled the question down to an even more basic point.
“What is fair funding is the question,” Corbett told The Mercury. “What’s the formula and how do you do it?” he asked, pointing to the same questions Vereb asked.
“Remember, a school district has its own money, but the school districts are the ones who negotiate contracts with all the unions, the state isn’t there for that,” Corbett said.
“So you have to be careful when you talk fair-funding formula, because if a school district negotiates a generous contract, are they going to be looking to the state for more money than what the ‘fair funding formula’ is?” Corbett asked. “And that’s kind of what I see as part of the problem over the years.”
There are other problems certainly.
Vereb noted that the “hold harmless” provision — which guarantees a district will not receive less state funding than it did the year before, even if its enrollment is shrinking — may be harming “growing districts like Spring-Ford, Perkiomen Valley and even Methacton which aren’t getting increases to match their larger student populations.”
But that provision won’t go quietly.
Clarion County Republican Donna Oberlander, R-63rd Dist., who is also a member of the commission, announced she would vote against any formula that removes that provision on which the rural school districts she represents depend. She said her opinion is shared by “a large contingent” of the House Republican Caucus, according to a report by Capitol Wire.
But Vereb warned against that kind of parochial thinking.
Again echoing Corbett, Vereb said “we want to make sure the people on the commission are geared toward the best solution for everyone and not just looking out for their own districts.”
Corbett also warned against that tendency among legislators.
“Each legislator, the first thing they look at is the funding for their schools and see how their schools are going to be affected when they’re looking at how they’re going to vote on budgets,” he told The Mercury.
“We’ve got to end up with a result that can get 102-26 and one; 102 votes in the House, 26 votes in the senate and the governor’s signature,” Vereb said.
“If we’re really going to fix this, we’re going to have to look at everything, and what can work for everyone and what can get adopted,” Vereb said.
One path toward that goal could be to look at what other states got adopted, something Vereb pledged the commission will do.
“We want to look at what other states do sure, what works, what doesn’t,” said Vereb. “We’re not operating in a vacuum here.”
Luckily for the commission, that path has a map — a report issued last February by the Education Law Center — that looks at what factors other states considering in their education and how they compare to Pennsylvania’s practices.
The comparison isn’t pretty.
The national average for state education funding is 44 percent, whereas Pennsylvania currently provides only 35.8 percent.
“Only nine states contribute a lower percentage of state education than Pennsylvania,” the report’s authors wrote.
It also notes that Pennsylvania’s previous funding formula — based on the costing-out study — “was, in fact, similar to the one many states are now using. The formula measured the number of students in each district, community poverty levels, and local tax effort, allocating relatively more funding to districts that are larger, are poorer and have higher property taxes.”
According to the study, “30 states, including New York and New Jersey,” factor low-income students into their formulas.
In fact the report identifies 10 different factors used in states across the nation.
• Accurate student count;
• Weighting for low-income students;
• Weighting for students with disabilities;
• Weighting for English language learners;
• Per-student base cost;
• District poverty;
• District cost of living;
• District local tax effort;
• Small district;
• Adequacy target.
Two states — Virginia and Texas — use all those factors in determining state funding levels. Maine uses nine out of 10.
In the Northeast, New York uses eight; Maryland uses eight; New Jersey uses seven.
Even Alabama and Mississippi, which perennially rank at the bottom of the nation in educational achievement, use two and three of the factors, respectively.
Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that uses none.
“I think a lot of people think it’s very easy, you know just come up with a formula” said Corbett. “It if was just a formula, say X amount per student? But a lot of people wouldn’t agree with that as soon as they start looking at the detail.”