Pennsylvania shirks school funding?

By LYLE T. GALLOWAY
Posted 7/14/21

PENNSYLVANIA — Pennsylvania’s legislature may have dropped the ball when it comes to providing funds for education. 

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Pennsylvania shirks school funding?

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PENNSYLVANIA — Pennsylvania’s legislature may have dropped the ball when it comes to providing funds for education. 

Gov. Tom Wolf signed PA’s 2021-22 budget into law on June 30, meeting the assigned deadline. The budget currently sits at $40.8 billion, a 2.6 percent increase from last year’s budget. While the amount may not sound like a paltry sum, many advocacy groups are claiming that the amount of money being put toward education is insufficient.

“We’re always grateful for increases in funding for education, but this is just a huge, missed opportunity because there was a $3 billion surplus in state funding and there was $7 billion in federal one-time COVID-19 aid,” said Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters of PA. “This is money that could have been used to fix some systemic problems we have with the way that schools are funded.”

Education Voters of PA works with another organization known as PA Schools Work, a nonpartisan coalition of organizations representing teachers, parents and community members across urban and rural environments. Their main goal is to advocate for PA public schools and the communities they serve.

According to Spicka, this year, altogether 500 school districts in PA received a $200 million increase through the basic education funding formula. One hundred of the poorest school districts in the state were given $100 million in an attempt to “level them up.” A $50 million increase in special education funding was collectively given out to districts.

There is also a bit of one-time funding going to the school districts from the state. Due to certain stipulations, it can only be used for designated one-time costs. Those funds are allocated to school districts under the title I formula, a federal funding formula used to distribute money based upon the number of students living in poverty in each district and/or charter school.

Spicka compared the money received in basic education funding to a “paycheck,” while the one-time funding from the state was compared to a “savings account.”

“Just like you can’t use your savings account to pay for groceries, because it’ll be gone and you’ll still have the ongoing need, you really can’t use this one-time funding that school districts are getting to pay for ongoing costs,” said Spicka.

The biggest issue that Spicka sees concerning education funding is that state funding for it is inadequate. The state provides 37 percent of what it costs to run K-12 education, while the United States’ average is 47 percent. Pennsylvania went from being the 44th to the 45th in state funding for public education.

When the state doesn’t shoulder that burden, it goes to the local school boards, who then have to raise property taxes to cover the gaps in cost. There is often a lot of misdirected anger from the public when it comes to school boards raising property taxes due to this.

In many schools in wealthier neighborhoods, revenue can be raised without having to call upon local property owners. Underfunded schools, rural schools and schools in cities without well-managed property tax bases are mostly affected. According to PA Schools Work, there is a $4,800 funding gap per student between wealthy and poorer neighborhoods.

Charter school funding presents another challenge. Cyber charter tuition rates are the same as physical charter school rates, even though they don’t need as much funding to operate as their brick-and-mortar counterparts. School districts have to pay for these tuition rates out of pocket because no state funding to help cover the cost exists. According to Spicka, the tuition calculator for charter schools has not been modified in over 27 years.

Spicka and her counterparts at Education Voters of PA and PA Schools Work hope to advocate for better education funding. They hope that most of the burden begins to shift away from school districts and local taxpayers to the state.

Some upcoming decisions in the court may have bearing on the future of education funding as well. On September 9, a trial will begin in Harrisburg. Two law centers filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of six school districts, five parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the NAACP-Pennsylvania State Conference. The lawsuit claims that the state was not providing a “thorough and efficient system of public education” and violating the Equal Protection Clause and the Constitution. Students received vastly different experiences based on the zip codes in which they lived.

Spicka hopes that this trial will stir public interest in advocating for equal funding for PA schools and that a victory in court will transform the landscape of how the Keystone State’s schools get their support.

For more information about PA School’s Work and what they have in store next, visit www.paschoolswork.org.

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