DELCO TIMES: INEQUITIES CONTINUE IN EDUCATION FUNDING DESPITE MORE MONEY

The school year is drawing to an end, and that means district leaders are compiling their budgets for 2018-19 to scrutinize what their expenses will look like and how they’re going to pay for it.

Perhaps the most certain thing every year is that real estate taxes will be the driving revenue source for districts, leaving most to raise taxes to fight off rising expenses like salaries, benefits, and education mandates as they settle for their state and federal appropriations. The Education Law Center declared in 2013 that the state’s share of school funding is 34 percent, an approximate figure reiterated by the Pennsylvania School Board Association and Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

It may be a coincidence that two reports released last week address the commonwealth’s funding of primary education.

A poll commissioned by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center of 1,100 residents show that 83 percent believe full funding of K-12 public schools is a top or important priority and 56 percent said the Legislature spends too little on education. A majority was reached across the political spectrum on the topic from 62 percent of self-identifying conservative republicans giving it a higher priority and up to 97 percent of liberal democrats agreeing.

Without full funding from the state there is continued disparity throughout Pennsylvania due in part to the longstanding “hold harmless” provision of giving districts education funding. It held that districts will receive state money at a level that is no less than what they were given in the prior year regardless of enrollment. To combat this, a basic education funding formula was signed into law in 2015 which uses factors like enrollment, number of students in poverty and English Language Learners in how state money is sent to districts.

However, only new money added to the state’s basic education fund since 2015, approximately $450 million, is appropriated by the funding formula, which is about seven percent of the $6 billion basic education fund for 2017-18.

A special education funding formula has also been signed into law in the same vain.

The organization Equity First recently released its list of the most underfunded counties in the state to show the disparity that exists when the state’s funding formulas are not fully implemented. They report that the 11 most underfunded counties are short $1 billion, while the 11 most overfunded counties are $600 million in the black.

Delaware County is listed as one of the most underfunded counties, lacking a collective $48.5 million that would be afforded to it if all money was distributed through the state’s funding formulas, but even here there is a level of disparity.

For 2018-19, Equity First reports Upper Darby is $19.1 million short in money that is proposed to them in Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget compared to what they should be getting if all money was applicable to the funding formulas, equal to $1,551 per student. Penn-Delco on the other hand is proposed $1.2 million more in the state budget than would be awarded to them through the funding formulas.

Here is how Equity First broke down remaining county school districts in proposed budget money over what they may be owed through the funding formula by way of the most underfunded spending per pupil: Southeast Delco, -$7 million (-$1,570 per student); Chester Upland, -$7.8 million (-$1,105 per student); William Penn, -$5.2 million (-$937 per student); Chichester, -$2 million (-$576 per student); Garnet Valley, -$2 million (-$444 per student);

Springfield, -$1.4 million (-$370 per student); Interboro, -$960,000 (-$274 per student); Ridley, -$1.4 million (-$260 per student); Wallingford-Swarthmore, -$607,000 (-$176 per student); Radnor Township, -$644,000 (-$175 per student); and Haverford Township, -$256,000 (-$45 per student).

Like Penn-Delco, Marple Newtown and Rose Tree Media also showed potential overfunding by the state compared to the funding formula by $20 and $251, respectively, per student.

The range in disparity across the state goes from underfunding $6,565 per student in the York City School District to overfunding $7,666 per student in Beaver County’s South Side Area School District.

“All families care about the education of their children. When inequalities in funding get in the way of that, it is a serious issue,” said Upper Darby Superintendent Dan Nerelli. “All of our kids deserve the same educational opportunities.”

Rebecca Kann, co-founder of Equity First, said getting the legislature to adopt a formula was a good start, but, “that was all they were willing to do at this point.”

“It is going to be a long time for severely underfunded schools to catch up,” she said. “There’s not a whole lot of money going through the formula.”

At the current rate of incremental monetary additions to education funding, Kann estimates it would be over 30 years until all education money is appropriated through the funding formulas.

State Rep. Tom Quigley, R-146 of Royersford, is looking to speed up full implementation of the formulas with planned legislation that he is working on with state Rep. Tim Hennessey, R-26, of North Coventry.

“We’re trying to reignite the discussion about accelerating the amount of money that’s put through the fair funding formula to try to get some of these districts up to parity,” Quigley said Friday afternoon.

The bill would allocate 75 percent of new basic education money proportionately to the underfunded school districts, the remainder distributed through the basic education funding formula. Kann had discussed a similar proposal with a $400 million investiture in basic education and $80 million in special education for each of the next few years as a way to fix school funding.

Quigley, who serves on the state House’s Education Committee, said a slow implementation of distributing all money through the formula would be better than all at once.

“Trying to do it in one foul swoop, or doing it overnight, results in 180 districts that would win but then 320 districts would lose,” he said. “It’s pretty impractical to do it all at one time in that matter, as opposed to a gradual manner where the schools that are currently underfunded start to rise a little bit. The ones who are overfunded, for lack of a better term, they start going down a little bit.

“You’re giving districts and people time to prepare for that change over a period of time.”

When asked about the state using fair funding formulas and increasing money toward education since federal stimulus money ran out in 2010-11, Superintendent Nerelli said the Legislature still hasn’t been doing enough.

“Year after year, politicians talk about the importance of reading and educating our youth, but they do not deliver on providing the appropriate funding to do so,” he said. “This is as much a national problem as a state problem because public education is not really controlled at a local level.”

“Just about everything costs more each year,” added Southeast Delco Superintendent Stephen Butz. “The local revenues and state revenues have not come near to covering what is needed to provide an adequate education system. Due to the increasing costs and not enough resources, we have to reduce positions to make ends meet which means less for our students.”

Growing student enrollment figures, charter school tuition, special education costs and pension costs are some of the biggest cost drivers to Butz’s district.

“It is extremely difficult to educate more students with less funds per student over the past five years,” he said. “Due to the lack of new funding going into the funding formula, the school districts with a small tax base and high poverty levels like Southeast Delco are continuing to reduce staff positions and increase class sizes.

“Southeast Delco relies heavily on state and federal funding to meet the needs of our students; The current school funding system in Pennsylvania is not fair for our students.”

Nerelli said local control of education is often trumped by state and federal mandates which range anywhere from professional development to teacher evaluation systems. Unfundated mandates include those for special education, Pennsylvania Information Management System (PIMS), attendance, testing data, safe schools documentation and more.

“Every school district focuses on goals of increasing student achievement, improving reading outcomes, reducing discipline, etc., but it is difficult to meet those goals when you are trying to comply with these mandates that require additional staffing and resources,” said Nerelli. “Essentially, all of the current mandates take money away from educating students.”

Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators Executive Director Marc DiRocco said that message is coming through in communities.

“The message is starting to get out there that the governor and the legislature have put some additional subsidy into our schools, but the state-mandated costs … are losses of revenue for school districts, and subsidy increases are not keeping up with those costs,” said DiRocco on a Thursday morning teleconference to discuss the policy center’s funding poll. “What the survey shows is that the public is catching on to this. They’re understanding that increases in costs to run schools and programming that is needed, are just not coming to light because there’s not enough subsidy there.”

When asked about how districts can save money on mandates, DiRocco said any help that the state can provide in cutting back on their mandates would be greatly appreciated.

On the whole, Education Voters of Pennsylvania Executive Director Susan Spicka said for students to reach their full potential, they need to have the resources.

“These extreme disparities in funding create persistent inequalities in educational opportunities that prevent hundreds of thousands of children from getting the resources they need academically,” said Spicka. Providing for counselors and remedial instruction are services that cost a lot of money, “and the schools that need them the most are the most unable to provide these services to students.”

School funding has extended beyond the state legislature and Wolf’s office. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ordered the Commonwealth Court to hold trial in a lawsuit, led by William Penn School District, against the state saying state officials are not upholding their constitutional duty to adequately and equitably fund public education. The Commonwealth Court in March heard arguments on preliminary objections on the case and a motion to dismiss by defendant state House Speaker Mike Turzai. They have yet to rule on the matters.

Officials in Southeast Delco, Haverford and Upper Darby school districts have publicly declared their support for William Penn in the case.

Representative Quigley said he is waiting to see how the court rules and what that will mean going further.

In regard to funding, Quigley said being “fair,” a term widely used for advocates seeking equity, is in the eye of the beholder.

“That’s the challenge we’ve always faced in Pennsylvania with 500 school districts of different economic, financial backgrounds to start with, it makes it very challenging to get fair funding,” he said. “The fair funding formula is good, but I think it just needs to be accelerated and that’s what I’m hoping to do with my legislation.

“Without accelerating it, it makes it less fair.”

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