EAST FALLS LOCAL ARTICLE: A Fair Funding Formula that is Not Fair

One lesson reinforced – or, for some, learned – as a result of COVID-19 is that our basic public education system is less than equitable.

Even though our state constitution states that, “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth,” in reality, our system does not meet its constitutional obligation.

When the Governor ordered schools to close, some school districts – there are 500 total – moved seamlessly into remote learning. The tools needed, e.g. internet access, laptops or tablets, and curriculums conducive to remote learning, were readily available. These districts were able to quickly prep teachers for remote instruction.

Other districts did not have sufficient equipment or infrastructure to make this shift effortlessly. For example, Philadelphia needed to raise funds privately to help get the necessary tools into the hands of students and teachers.

What has created this inequity? What can be done?

Over the past 40 years, different funding formulas have been used to allocate basic public education funding. Those formulas have varied and included financial participation by federal, state and local governments.

The percentage of participation has also varied over time. In the 1970s, the state’s participation was close to 50% of funding required for school district’s needs. Today, that percentage is closer to 35%.

Further contributing to the inequity is a “hold harmless feature” for basic education funding. The hold harmless feature guarantees that a school district receives no less than the same amount of state basic education dollars that it received in the prior fiscal year; regardless of the fact that their student enrollment may have diminished over time and that they actually have less costs and expenses.

In response to the ongoing concern about funding, the PA General Assembly established the Basic Education Funding Commission pursuant to Act 51 of 2014 (House Bill 1738) in order to examine the basic education funding formula.

The Commission held 15 hearings across the state in 2014 and 2015. The Commission received testimony from over 110 individuals, including superintendents, academics, school board presidents, representatives of the business community, non-profit groups, other states, and parents. The Independent Fiscal Office (IFO) also conducted a survey. The survey sought input from 125 schools in order to determine their cost for various factors.

The Commission recommended that the General Assembly adopt a new formula.

The main objective of the new funding formula was to equitably distribute state resources according to various student and school district factors. The new formula includes factors reflecting student and community differences such as poverty, local effort (local tax base) and capacity, and rural and small district conditions.

At the time of the formula adoption, I spent time learning and understanding why the then-recommended formula was better or different than formulas used over the previous 40 years. I was convinced the formula was thoughtful, strategic and included factors that had not been considered previously.

So, why then did the response to COVID-19 vary so greatly among school districts? One reason is the formula is only applied to new dollars appropriated. The formula is not applied to all basic education funding appropriated.

Since the formula is not applied to all funding that is appropriated, the inequity is perpetuated.

Also, there was no political will to eliminate the hold harmless feature which then continues to ensure overfunding for some districts.

If all of the money appropriated for basic education were distributed per the formula, we would, indeed, see more dollars flow into the struggling school districts. There are currently two bills that have been introduced to accomplish this goal.

I will continue to work toward ensuring that all dollars will be distributed equitably. The really good news is that the Commission is to be reconstituted every five years to meet and hold public hearings to review the operation of the basic education funding provisions and to make a further report to the General Assembly. This is a true silver lining amidst this novel coronavirus hell.