POTTSTOWN MERCURY: FLURRY OF BILLS WOULD SPEED UP FAIR SCHOOL FUNDING
By Evan Brandt, The Mercury
POTTSTOWN >> As school and state budget deadlines loom, a number of factors are combining to show a glimmer of hope for relief for underfunded school districts like Pottstown.
And that glimmer is coming from Harrisburg.
Most significant are bills introduced in the House and Senate by Pottstown-area representatives to speed up the implementation of funding education through the “fair funding formula.”
$13.5M FUNDING GAP
Adopted two years ago in recognition of the various factors — such as poverty and local tax effort — that skew education spending in favor of wealthy districts, the amount of money Harrisburg has provided through that formula has been meagre compared to the amount the state spends overall.
In fact, according to information presented at a fair education rally in Pottstown Thursday, of the $5.5 billion in school funding in Gov. Wolf’s proposed budget, only $5.4 million would be distributed through the formula — less than 10 percent of the total education budget.
On the other hand, new calculations put out recently by the advocacy group “Equity First” show that were that formula in place today, Pottstown schools would be receiving $13.5 million more in state aid that it does currently.
That ranks Pottstown at an unenviable fifth place out of 500 districts in a list of the most underfunded schools in Pennsylvania.
There is no doubt $13.5 million would be welcome given the $2.5 million budget gap Pottstown is facing right now as it ponders a 3.5 percent tax hike, the first in four years.
BILLS WOULD ADDRESS FAIRNESS
State Reps. Tom Quigley, R-146th Dist. and Tim Hennessey, R-26th Dist., announced last week they had jointly introduced legislation, which has bipartisan support, that would ramp up the delivery of state aid through the fair funding formula by 20 percent each year, reaching full implementation in five years.
Were that legislation to be adopted, it would provide an additional $2.7 million to Pottstown in the coming fiscal year and wipe out both the deficit and the need to raise taxes.
State Sen. Robert Mensch, R-24th Dist., has introduced an identical bill in the state Senate.
“School districts like Pottstown show that the state needs to have a greater urgency in achieving full implementation of the new school funding formula,” said Mensch. “But until the state gets there, bills like we are introducing are essential for the financial success of struggling school districts.”
“This is exciting legislation for both students and taxpayers. It not only recognizes the need to use the fair funding formula in our commonwealth to equitably educate students but also provides a better way to ‘catch up’ those districts like ours that are so badly underfunded each year,” said Pottstown Schools Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez.
“While the measure does not get us fully funded, it’s a big step in the right direction. I’m personally grateful to Senator Mensch, Rep. Quigley, and Rep. Hennessey for spearheading this charge for public education in both the House and the Senate,” he said.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!
As it turns out, this is not the only bill out there.
According to Quigley, Montgomery County-based State Rep. Todd Stephens, R-151st Dist. and Philadelphia-based State Rep. Martina White, R-170th, have introduced a bill calling for the entire state education funding allocation to be distributed through the fair funding formula immediately.
But the bill also runs up against a political pitfall due to an arcane political remnant called “hold harmless.”
WHAT IS ‘HOLD HARMLESS?’
Implemented years ago, hold harmless is a state policy that guarantees no district will receive less money that it did the previous year, even if it has fewer students.
While the bill proposed by Stephens and White takes the abrupt step of eliminating hold harmless immediately, yet another bill, this one bill proposed by Berks County-based State Rep. Jim Cox, R-129th Dist., would phase out “hold harmless” more gradually, over five years.
Hold harmless “benefits shrinking school districts which receive the same or more funding each year, despite having fewer students. Meanwhile, districts with growing enrollments are adversely impacted, because the (basic education funding) formula prevents the distribution of these same dollars to districts with increased student populations” Cox wrote in a memo to other legislators.
Hold harmless is also responsible for the increasing racial imbalance in Pennsylvania’s education funding.
RACIAL FUNDING IMBALANCE
As The Mercury reported last April, the districts with shrinking enrollments — often located in the center and western parts of the state — generally have much smaller minority populations than urban and suburban districts around Philadelphia.
As a result, when funding is calculated on a per-pupil basis, hold harmless results in districts with whiter populations, even when they are as poor as a more urban district like Pottstown, still receiving more money per-student than those with a larger minority population.
Because the fair funding formula takes these factors into account, that racial disparity disappears once all Pennsylvania education funding is distributed according to the formula, and so all the bills proposed recently would eventually undo that unfairness.
However, many of the counties with districts losing population, which would lose money were hold harmless to be eliminated, are represented by some of Harrisburg’s most powerful politicians.
For example, Quigley said, “every single district in Indiana County would lose money” if the fair funding formula were in place today.
Indiana County also just happens to be the home of House Majority Leader Dave Reed.
“Many of the most powerful lawmakers in Harrisburg represent districts that would be on the losing end of this prospect, including Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman R, Centre, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, and House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny,” Kevin McCorry observed in a June, 2016 report in Keystone Crossroads examining the impact of the hold harmless policy.
TIRED OF WAITING
Quigley said what’s making this legislation possible this year is “after two years of the fair funding formula being in place, and but not being fully implemented, the school districts are starting to feel restless.”
And more areas of the state, according to the Equity First analysis, are recognizing they are being short-changed by the existing system.
“Districts in the Poconos, in Berks County with Reading and the Southeast where we are, and York City’s representative just signed on yesterday,” Quigley said Thursday, “are all starting to agitate for this. It’s getting harder to ignore.”
That’s not too surprising, given that York City is Pennsylvania’s most under-funded district and Reading is number two. Allentown ranks sixth, after Pottstown, Scranton is number nine and Lancaster is tenth.
In addition to general restlessness at the slow pace of the fair funding formula’s implementation, advocacy by underfunded districts, particularly Rodriguez, has been crucial said Quigley.
ENTER THE ADVOCATES
“His advocacy over the year has been tireless,” Quigley said. “I think I’ve seen him more times in the last year than I’ve seen any other superintendent. Mensch and I had a particularly good meeting with him two weeks ago, after which we decided to go ahead and propose our bills.”
That advocacy was on full display Thursday night when a fair education funding rally organized by the Federation of Pottstown Teachers was staged at Pottstown High School.
“I was at a Pottstown School Board meeting in February where they were starting to talk about cutting programs,” said federation president and art teacher Beth Yoder. “We can’t cut anymore. At the elementary level, we have no guidance counselors. We have no assistant superintendent and we’re down more than 20 teachers right now.”
Further, she added, “and we can’t raise taxes any more, people in this town can’t afford it. It’s just all starting to snowball.”
The difference is funding is evident when you consider that Spring-Ford High School offers more than 20 different Advance Placement courses, while Pottstown has “six or seven,” said Pottstown School Board member Kim Stilwell.
Joe Ciresi, a former Spring-Ford School Board member now running as a Democrat to unseat Quigley, agreed.
“We are one of the wealthiest counties not just in the state, but in the entire United States, but Pennsylvania is at the absolute bottom, in 50th place, when it comes to equitable school funding. If you go down to places like Abington and compare those schools and programs to what we have here, it’s like comparing New York to Arkansas,” Ciresi said.
Marc Stier, executive director of the left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, was at the rally as well and said “Pennsylvania is the most unequal state in the union when it comes to education funding. The richest school districts in Pennsylvania spend 33 percent more on their students than the poorest ones.”
Stilwell emphasized the importance of keeping in touch with legislators to keep the pressure on.
“When we hound our legislators, it makes a difference,” she said.
“When they don’t hear from the public, they don’t care,” said Ciresi.
Cerisi said he was not there Thursday “to make this about politics,” but managed to add “Pottstown didn’t get $13.5 million underfunded overnight. Fair funding is needed and Pottstown can’t go another two or three years without it.”
THERE’S MORE MONEY
Another factor making these bills more palatable is increased statewide revenues.
According to a report in The Morning Call, Pennsylvania collected $29 billion by the end of April, an amount 0.6 percent above estimates and much better than the $1.2 billion deficit that emerged at this same time last year “and just in time for elections.”
Is the fact that Quigley, Hennessey and Mensch are all running for reelection in a year many polls indicate will include many big wins for Democrats a factor in the introduction of these bills?
Quigley said no, arguing simply that the timing was right; it looks like there will be money available to implement it; and the leadership is now more willing to listen.
“Listen, when I go to a Boy Scout ceremony and give out an Eagle Scout award people accuse me of being political,” Quigley said.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Evan Brandt has worked for The Mercury since November 1997. His beat includes Pottstown, the surrounding townships and the Pottstown and Pottsgrove school districts, as well as other varied general topics like politics, the environment and education. Reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org follow Evan on Twitter: @PottstownNews.