It has been 17 years since Pennsylvania last had a coherent and consistent formula to fund its public schools, but a growing statewide coalition is determined to change that in 2008.
After a “costing-out” study authorized by the Pennsylvania General Assembly found the state’s schools to be underfunded by more than $4 billion, Gov. Ed Rendell took the bold step of releasing a state education budget that offers a significant down payment towards this shortfall and utilizes a need-based school funding formula.
A broad-based coalition of education and advocacy groups under the banner of the Pennsylvania School Funding Campaign, dedicated to ensuring follow-up on the costing-out study’s recommendations, is organizing support for the governor’s plan.
“The most important thing,” explained Ron Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center (EPLC) and a spokesperson for the campaign, “is that the governor’s proposal puts into place a system that we have not had since 1991, and that there is a plan to fund it over six years.”
The new education budget, if approved, will significantly boost the state’s contribution to public school funding by $291 million (6 percent) in the 2008-09 school year. This year’s budget would be the first step toward phasing in a massive net increase of $2.6 billion over six years.
What makes the plan groundbreaking, however, is that additional state funds are distributed on the basis of each district’s “adequacy gap” – the difference between actual spending and the amount calculated by the costing-out study as necessary for students to meet state academic standards. The result is greater support for the neediest districts, taking into account factors such as student population, poverty rate, and local tax burden.
Michael Churchill, chief counsel for the Public Interest Law Center and member of the campaign’s steering committee, suggested that the plan is an important first step. “While the governor’s budget doesn’t have the state assume the entire gap, it makes considerable headway,” he explained.
One of the campaign’s recommendations for building on the governor’s proposal is to address special education funding needs – a component of the costing-out analysis that “the governor’s proposal does not even purport to talk about,” said Churchill. Other campaign recommendations include adjusting the formula to reflect disparities in local wealth, loosening accountability requirements for districts making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), and ensuring that all districts receive at least a 2 percent increase.
Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) is one of the 27 organizations that serve on the campaign’s steering committee, and has taken a lead in organizing in the region. “We’re trying to schedule visits and help others facilitate meetings with as many legislators as we can,” said Sheila Simmons, education coordinator for PCCY.
Campaign leaders have also convened meetings with editorial boards throughout the state and worked on grassroots organizing.
The struggle is critical for Philadelphia, as the School District is counting on the governor’s proposed $85 million in additional state funds in its budget for next year. The amount is intended to begin addressing an “adequacy gap” in Philadelphia calculated at $4,620 per student.
Representative James Roebuck, who represents West Philadelphia and chairs the House Education Committee, is hopeful that the full amount will come through for the District, but warns that there are “no guarantees.”
“There will be some hard negotiations as we go forward, but hopefully we’ll stay fairly close to what the governor has suggested,” he said. “We’ll be fighting very hard to make sure the funds will be there.”
Campaign leaders also remain optimistic, explaining that the timing is opportune for funding reform.
“You have the costing-out study, followed by the proposal by the Governor to address the problem – based on a non-partisan, General Assembly-commissioned study – and now bills have been introduced in the House and Senate,” said Simmons, adding that such a series of events “doesn’t happen often.”
Cowell suggested that the biggest challenge could be too much familiarity with a broken funding system.
“Most legislators weren’t in the General Assembly last time there was a system,” he explained, remarking that a long-term strategy to adequately and equitably fund schools may come as a “new idea” to many politicians reluctant to make the considerable financial investment.
Roebuck also explained that although the proposed budget would not necessitate a tax increase in the coming year, an eventual increase is an “unspoken assumption” among legislators. “I don’t know anyone who favors any kind of tax increase,” he cautioned.
But Delaware County Representative Nicholas Micozzie, a leader of many previous efforts to resurrect a funding formula, noted, “The money has to come from somewhere,” and cited a personal income tax increase as a likely source of revenue.
As the General Assembly prepares to head into negotiations in June, Cowell emphasized the significance of the legislators approving not only this year’s dollar amount in the proposed budget, but also the implementation of the new formula for the long-term.
“If all we do is get a lot more money this year, then we’ve failed,” he stressed, “This is about making sure there’s a rational system consistent from year to year to year.”