Opinion: Fully and fairly fund our schools
Jan. 17, 2016 – The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – By Nancy A. Hubley and Patrick Dowd
Pennsylvania’s leaders have signed off on school funding reform. It’s long past time they got it done.
This month Pennsylvania began 2016 without a full budget, leaving the short- and long-term needs of every school — and every student — up in the air.
In the short term, the partial spending plan recently signed by Gov. Tom Wolf will provide desperately needed emergency cash for schools and human services, but only enough to push off closures and further cuts for a few more months.
In the long term, the budget gridlock means that one of the fundamental issues facing Pennsylvania — the need to repair our broken public school funding system — remains unresolved.
Not having sufficient resources is unfortunately nothing new for Pennsylvania students. Years of inadequate and inequitable funding have forced many school districts to eliminate programs, lay off teachers and reduce academic support for students. These cuts particularly harm at-risk learners who lag behind their peers and will continue to do so unless they are provided with resources and supports that address their needs.
The reality is that the state’s current system of funding education simply does not work. On that, virtually everyone agrees: Republicans, Democrats and educators in rural, urban, suburban and charter schools. The system does not provide sufficient resources to educate every student to academic standards, nor does it distribute dollars in a fair and predictable way.
The budget gridlock has only made things worse: Scores of school districts across the state have been forced to borrow emergency funds just to keep their already-underfunded doors open.
The result, repeated again and again since long before today’s ongoing budget impasse, is that Pennsylvania has the widest funding gap between wealthy and poor school districts of any state in the country. That means that the amount of money available to educate a child varies widely, depending solely on where each child happens to live. The lack of predictability in the distribution of funds also means that school districts cannot effectively plan for the future.
Pennsylvania’s inadequate school funding system has compelled our organizations to help create and lead the Campaign for Fair Education Funding, a coalition of more than 50 diverse organizations dedicated to advancing a funding system that allocates state education dollars in a fair way so that all children have a chance to succeed no matter where they live.
Last June, the bipartisan state Basic Education Funding Commission, made up of representatives from the governor’s office, the Department of Education and members of both parties in the state House and Senate, responded to this call for action and unanimously approved recommendations for a new school funding formula. After months of hearings, analysis and negotiations, the commission developed a formula that would address the concerns of schools and remove politics from decisions as to whether students have the resources they need to succeed.
This balanced formula would direct money to school districts based on objective factors, such as student enrollment, the needs of the student population and school district wealth and capacity to raise local revenue. It was widely praised by legislators, local school officials and other experts and editorial boards across Pennsylvania as a critical first step towards equity and adequacy in Pennsylvania’s school funding.
In a year of political gridlock and increasing polarization, it is notable that all sides came together to find a solution to benefit students. The formula’s adoption, however, is still in question.
It was included in the budget framework that the governor and legislative leaders agreed to back in November, when a consensus was reached to direct some new dollars to restore past funding cuts while distributing the remaining dollars through the new funding formula. In future years, the new, fairer formula would be used to distribute all funding.
If the governor and legislators want to move toward sustained, meaningful investment in our schools, they should pass a full budget that contains at least an additional $350 million for basic education to help restore previous school funding cuts and begin implementing the new funding formula. This significant increase in basic funding would be only a down payment on the long-term investment required to reach equitable and adequate funding, but it is a necessary first step.
It is time for lawmakers to cast aside their differences for what should be their top priority: an equitable basic education funding system that provides a strong foundation for the long-term investment that is needed in our public schools.
Pennsylvania’s students, who are shortchanged every day by our broken system, cannot afford to wait any longer.
Nancy A. Hubley is Pittsburgh director of the Education Law Center. Patrick Dowd is executive director of Allies for Children.