News Room

Op-Ed: Our public schools are in crisis – and students are paying the price

June 8, 2015 – PennLive Op-Ed by Ian Noah Gavigan and Deborah Gordon Klehr – Our state’s public schools are in crisis and students are paying the price.

Academic performance is stagnating. Classroom sizes are growing as teachers, counselors, and other staff are laid off as a result of continuing budget cuts. Districts have eliminated core services and programs, and more cuts are possible.

This crisis results from two primary factors: in 2011, the state cut nearly $1 billion in basic education funds, and Pennsylvania does not have an adequate, fair formula to distribute basic education funding to the state’s 500 school districts.

The Education Law Center of Pennsylvania comes to this discussion with a deep knowledge of what it takes to create a fair school funding system.

We are challenging the state in court for failing to adequately and equitably fund schools; the current system is unconstitutional and discriminatory.

We have also joined with dozens of groups from around the state – including business leaders, educators, advocates and faith leaders representing rural, urban, suburban, and charter schools – to form the Campaign for Fair Education Funding.

This unprecedented coalition is dedicated to helping develop a funding formula that drives out adequate state education dollars in a fair way so that every child has a chance to succeed no matter where she lives.

But it is not enough to simply create a formula, since not all formulas are created equal.

As legislators and Gov. Tom Wolf focus on how to address the funding inequities that plague our schools, momentum is building for a fair, accurate, transparent and predictable funding formula.

At this crucial juncture, we must ensure that adequate resources are delivered to schools and to our neediest students.

Pennsylvania’s funding formula must provide districts sufficient resources to educate our children to established state standards.

Research and common sense show that some children need more resources than others when it comes to succeeding in school.

Whether they live in poverty, are learning English, are experiencing homelessness or are navigating the foster care system, many children face unique challenges that must be addressed through specialized instruction, smaller class sizes and one-on-one attention.

At-risk learners will continue to lag behind their peers unless they are provided with resources that address their complex and individual needs.

Meaningful interventions cost money and Pennsylvania’s school funding formula must ensure that the money goes to the students who need it the most.

A sound formula doesn’t uniformly divvy up state dollars based solely on the number of students in a district; rather, it takes into account the complex web of student and community needs to determine how much funding districts need.

Effective formulas have two basic components. First, the state calculates a single foundation amount that applies to all students. This base amount should represent the cost of educating the average student so that the student can meet state standards.

Second, that figure must be adjusted by weights that correlate to student- and district-specific characteristics. For example, research shows that there are increased costs associated with adequately educating low-income children. Thus, a fair funding formula includes a poverty weight to drive additional dollars to districts with low-income students.

A good formula will also include a weight for a school district’s wealth. The relative lack of local wealth in communities serving at-risk students has led many school districts to tax their communities at markedly higher rates than their neighboring districts.

For example, William Penn School District must tax its community at nearly twice the rate of nearby Haverford Township School District, only to raise far less money per student.

An effective, fair formula could account for this through a tax effort weight. Pennsylvania’s leaders must develop a formula with both a strong base cost and robust weights that meet the needs of students and communities.

We are pleased to see bipartisan support from the Basic Education Funding Commission and Wolf’s administration for the notion of a fair funding formula. But the devil is in the details.

The specifics of this forthcoming formula and the amount of money to be allocated to fund our schools will ultimately tell us whether the proposals will fix the system or perpetuate longstanding disparities between affluent and struggling districts.

We must address both adequacy and inequality by restoring the 2011 cuts and then instituting an adequate and equitable funding formula based on real costs that will help struggling districts provide sorely needed basic services.

We will only begin to see improved outcomes if we commit ourselves to giving the most vulnerable learners the services they need.

Simply keeping the school doors open and the lights on will not suffice. As we develop a school funding formula, let’s make sure we get it right.

Ian Noah Gavigan is a Research and Policy Fellow for the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania. Deborah Gordon Klehr is the Interim Executive Director, Education Law Center of Pennsylvania.