Opinion: Focus outrage on public school funding formula

By Merlyn Clarke

Interpreters of Greek mythology suggest that when Pandora opened her famous box, her intent was purely innocent, driven by honest curiosity, but nevertheless resulted in introducing evil into the world. The Judeo-Christian take on this event substitutes knowledge for evil. One could argue that the adoption of the fair funding formula for distributing education dollars approximates both interpretations. Developed by well-meaning legislators and administrators determined to rectify the irrationalities of basic education funding in Pennsylvania, it has revealed the magnitude of the inequities in ways that most could not have imagined. The recent adoption of the Fair Funding Law, now known as Act 35, declares that only new money put into education must be distributed according to the fair funding formula. The indignation arising from the revelation of how inequitable education funding has become should almost certainly result in demands that the formula be applied to all education funding. This will be anathema to many legislators and the school districts that they represent— districts that benefit handsomely from the way basic education dollars are currently distributed.

Here are some egregious examples of unfair funding right here close to home (calculated from estimates provided by the PA House GOP Caucus at http://bit.ly/29nbs6v. According to the allocations that the fair funding formula specifies, were all education money distributed according to the formula, Pocono Mountain School District would receive an additional $22 million during the 2016-17 fiscal year. East Stroudsburg School District would receive $14.7 million additional dollars. Stroudsburg School District’s allocation would be raised by $3.3 million.

Here are some extremes of over funding from around the state: Altoona will receive $13.5 million over and above what the funding formula calls for; Crawford-Penncrest in Clinton County, $10.6million; Punxsutawney, in Jefferson County, $9.5 million. And the all-time prince of over funding is the City of Pittsburgh, by a cool $69.2 million.
Coincidentally, State Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati hails from Jefferson County; Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa and House Minority Leader Frank Dermody both hail from Allegheny County. Speaker of the House, Mike Turzai, is also from the Allegheny County neighborhood.

Of some interest to us in Monroe County is the correlation between the level of under-funding from state basic education funding levels and property tax burdens, as measured by the percentage that property taxes consume of average household income (as calculated by PA Budget and Policy Center, found at http://bit.ly/29ncAaa.

Pocono Mountain 8.19 percent (highest in the state)

East Stroudsburg 7.76 percent (2nd highest in the state)

Stroudsburg 6.05 percent (4th highest in the state)

(Pleasant Valley is an anomaly. Its property tax rate of 5.68% of household income puts it at 5th highest in the state, and it receives $9.4 million above what the fair funding formula would provide.)

By comparison, here are the relevant tax levels of the above mentioned over-funded districts:
Altoona 0.94 percent (That’s right. Less than 1 percent)

Crawford-Penncrest 1.21 percent

Punxsutawney 1.07 percent

Pittsburgh 1.34 percent

One is tempted to conclude that these correlations between levels of over-funding and low property taxes go beyond simple correlations to actual causation.

A brief observation about the possible implications of the above data. The most powerful education lobbies in the state — Pennsylvania Association of School Boards (PSBA), Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), PA Association of School Administrators (PASA), and Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) — are all advocating that the problems of inequitable funding must be solved by putting huge amounts of new money into education, money that will be driven through the fair funding formula, rather than by applying the formula to existing basic education money. They estimate that over three billion dollars is needed — a 50% increase in current basic education funding. Where will these staggering amounts of money come from?

This year’s state budget, as developed by majorities in House and Senate, calls for a modest $200 million new money for education. There is yet no agreement on where even this money can be found; only that it will not come from higher sales and income taxes — the only possible source of significant money. Smokers, gamblers and alcoholic beverage drinkers will soon be maxed out as sources of additional revenue. (What other kinds of sin taxes are left? Prostitution?) Most powerful legislators in the state are seeing plenty of money flow into their low tax districts under the status quo. Only when the pain of high taxes is equalized will there be incentive for reform.

There is much attention in the media currently about the politics of anger. Is it time for some perceptible anger right here in Monroe County over the inequities we endure? Is it time to declare an end to our vassalage to other regions of the state? Focused outrage is often more effective in moving public policy than mere numbers.

Merlyn Clarke is a member of the Stroudsburg Area School District board.

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