A broad coalition of advocates is pressing for Gov. Rendell and legislative leaders to start the process of comprehensive school funding reform in Pennsylvania’s 2008-09 budget by distributing any new education aid according to a formula that takes into account the findings of the recently released “costing-out study.”
The yearlong study, ordered by the state legislature and made public November 14, detailed wide disparities in per pupil spending among the Commonwealth’s 501 school districts. It presented a staggering price tag – an additional $4.8 billion – for bringing all the state’s students up to academic proficiency.
The goal of the newly formed coalition is legislation that would call for the phase-in of the additional $4.8 billion over five years, by fiscal year 2013, with the money distributed according to the principles of “equity, adequacy, efficiency, accountability, and predictability.”
The costing-out study by the firm Augenblick, Palaich & Associates said that the Commonwealth doesn’t invest enough state money in education and that nearly all the districts were working with insufficient funds to meet the specific needs of their students – including many districts that tax themselves heavily.
But in the month since its release, a combination of factors have conspired to frustrate long-time advocates of funding reform, including disarray among legislative leaders, especially the House Democrats.
“It’s unclear who is steering the ship,” said Justin DeBerardinis, an organizer with the advocacy group Good Schools Pennsylvania.
He said that there are several “second-tier” legislators ready to do something, but added that they are stymied without more direction from the top.
The General Assembly is finishing the year having accomplished very little on any major issue, and has been content to put comprehensive school funding reform – which raises the specter of more taxes – on a slow track. Gov. Rendell personally has not commented on the study’s findings, leaving that to Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak.
Legislative leaders didn’t rush to embrace its conclusions. Legislators from Philadelphia – which according to the study needs another $5,000 per pupil annually, or nearly $1 billion, to educate all its students to proficiency – have been largely silent.
In the only concrete legislative response so far, the House Education Committee passed a resolution on December 12 to form an independent commission to study the issue further and make recommendations in a year.
While some advocates see that as a major victory and a “first step” towards comprehensive reform, others fear a commission could turn into a stalling tactic that will make it easy for key players in Harrisburg to avoid hard choices in an election year. In 2008, all the House members and half the senators are up for re-election.
In any case, the independent commission is not a done deal. The chairman of the Senate Education Commission, Republican James Rhoades, hasn’t yet decided whether to support the idea, according to a spokesman. And Gov. Rendell opposes it.
“We don’t think there needs to be an independent commission,” said Donna Cooper, the governor’s policy chief. “We believe the study speaks to the need for the legislature to deliberate with the executive branch to reach the goals as stated by the adequacy study.”
Starting in 1991, when the previous school funding formula was abandoned, new state basic education aid has largely been distributed as an across-the-board percentage increase with some additional aid directed towards high-need districts. Under Rendell, that practice has continued, along with “Accountability Block Grants” targeting specific initiatives like preschool, full-day kindergarten, and technology. In the past three years, through so-called “foundation funding,” additional money has been directed towards high-poverty districts to bring them up to a basic per-pupil spending level.
But overall, this patchwork system – as the costing-out study starkly pointed out – has led to widening disparities in spending among districts and a reduction in the percentage of education costs borne by the state government.
On December 18, the coalition presented to Zahorchak an alternative method for distributing new aid that begins to directly address some of the disparities cited in the study. One component would put a cap on a district’s local tax effort and substitute more state aid for districts that are taxing themselves heavily.
“We’re trying to make it clear we need a long-term formula to take us to what the legislature’s own study has shown is a way to get to adequacy,” said attorney Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. “It’s a better sell than saying put more money in and hopefully it will go to the right places.”
Ron Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, added that the goal is to get the governor to “propose something bold and comprehensive” in his February budget message.
“I trust that the governor wants to support public education, and obviously he’s a focus of this new effort of the education associations who want him to take leadership on a new funding formula – not just the effort to put new money in the budget,” said Janis Risch, the executive director of Good Schools.
But Cooper was noncommittal about the chances of a more needs-based funding formula for the next fiscal year.
“I think that the study speaks for itself in terms of the needs for Pennsylvania at the Commonwealth level to increase funding for schools,” she said. “The governor has done that for the first five years and will continue to try to do so.”
The coalition is seeking an additional billion dollars for schools in fiscal 2009, or about one-fifth of the total called for in the study, and several members said they were optimistic that the governor is planning a substantial increase.
They are also trying to wake up school districts and citizens to put pressure on the General Assembly to act. For a long time, school districts have taken the inequities for granted and shied away from urging comprehensive reform. But already over 50 districts from 28 counties have signed on to a petition urging action.
Mayor-elect Michael Nutter, before and during a November 28 State Board of Education hearing in Philadelphia to discuss the study’s findings, urged citizens to contact their legislators and demand action.
“Contact every person that you know, ask them to support a new funding formula for education in Pennsylvania,” Nutter said. “That has to be our goal and our focus…. This should be the number one topic of discussion everywhere we go. We need to have an organized campaign around this costing-out study.”
Some legislators, including Rep. Tony J. Payton, Jr. (D-Philadelphia), are working to get the General Assembly to combine school funding reform with its interest in property tax relief, which perennially tops the legislative agenda. Payton was the only city legislator to attend the hearing, held at Benjamin Franklin High School.
“I think it is a unique opportunity for us to do something on this end; there’s a huge call for property tax relief,” said Rep. Payton, who is circulating a petition among his colleagues to combine the two issues – which are naturally related, but generally treated separately in legislative deliberations.
Payton has been working with groups like Good Schools Pennsylvania to “come up with a bill that stabilizes the property tax situation and funds education at an adequate level.”
But he pointed out that many legislators are loath to consider new taxes, which would be necessary if the state were to increase its share of school costs.
Rhetorically, much of the reaction to the costing-out study by legislators has reflected a combination of anti-tax sentiment, especially among Republicans, and concern that there be more accountability for any additional money school districts receive.
David Broderick, executive director of the Senate Education Committee, said that the Senate Republican caucus was interested in looking at a fairer formula for distributing state aid, but wasn’t yet convinced of the need for a significantly higher state investment.
Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans, said there “are too many questions out there” for anything to happen in the upcoming budget cycle. Miskin even raised questions about the study itself. He endorsed the independent commission as a needed step to determine “exactly what data did they use, how did they use it – there are a lot of questions about the study that need to be answered.”
Augenblick, the firm that did the study, has done similar studies in about 20 other states.
While media coverage around the state has largely accepted the findings and said that the state has a problem, Miskin cited an editorial in the Harrisburg Patriot-News that questioned the need for more funding because some low-spending districts do relatively well while some high-spending districts do not.
“A lot of our members agree, a lot of the public agrees,” he said.
But Churchill said that most members of the legislature know that there is a problem, no matter what they say.
“We’re telling the governor and legislature that we want you to start putting in place a system that everybody will see will get to a long-term solution,” he said. “The inequities and disparities are there and real.”
Members of the new coalition (as of December 17) include:
Education Law Center; Education Policy and Leadership Center; Good Schools Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania Association of Career and Technical Administrators; Pennsylvania Association of Elementary and Secondary School Principals; Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools; Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators; Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials; Pennsylvania Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development; Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center; Pennsylvania Council of Churches; Pennsylvania League of Urban Schools; Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children; Pennsylvania PTA; Pennsylvania School Boards Association; Pennsylvania State Education Association; Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth; Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.