Democratic legislators say fixing school funding is a moral imperative
Using words like urgency and moral imperative, members of the Pennsylvania House’s Democratic Policy Committee, convened by State Rep. Christopher Rabb, met Wednesday in Mount Airy to emphasize the need to overhaul the state’s school funding system.
The legislators heard from several area school superintendents, as well as advocates, including those behind a pending lawsuit charging that the current method violates the state constitutional guarantee that all children have access to a “thorough and efficient” education.
The superintendents – from Pottstown, Upper Darby, Norristown, and Lancaster – as well as Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan declared in no uncertain terms that their districts lack what they need to educate their students. Advocates presented evidence that the funding system is racially discriminatory.
State funding for schools, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, is meant to make up for differences in wealth among local municipalities. Each state does this differently and with varying levels of enthusiasm and success. About half the states have been forced by the courts to make their funding systems more fair and adequate for their students’ needs.
Pennsylvania, where the courts until now have declined to get involved, has repeatedly been rated at the bottom, with the largest inequities between its wealthier and lower-income districts. While the nationwide average is for states to pay about half of total education costs, Pennsylvania’s share has dropped to about a third, meaning that a larger burden falls on local municipalities, which fund their schools primarily through property taxes.
“This truly is a crisis,” said Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez of Pottstown, a onetime industrial center that now has a poverty rate above 20 percent. He and the other superintendents cited large class sizes, a lack of librarians and counselors, insufficient special education services, and the inability to pay for needed positions like social workers.
Jordan pointed out that in all of the Philadelphia School District’s more than 200 schools, there are just seven certified librarians.
The forum took place in the auditorium of Emlen Elementary School, and for the beginning of the session, children sat in the audience holding signs that said “#end educational apartheid” and “fair funding now.”
Norristown Superintendent Christopher Dormer asked them to stand up. The inadequate and inequitable funding “is taking opportunities away from them,” he said. “We can’t lose sight of that.”
Almost all of Emlen’s students are African American. “This is real life, these are real kids,” said Superintendent Damaris Rau of Lancaster. “It is black and brown kids,” she said, who are hurt the most by the system.
The legislature adopted a new school funding formula in 2015 that doles out money based on a district’s enrollment. The formula weights the aid, sending districts extra money depending on their level of poverty, number of English learners, taxing capacity, and other factors.
But the formula, known as Act 35, is used only for a small percentage of the aid the state sends to districts. The bulk of the $6 billion outlay is distributed based on past patterns, an accumulation of old formulas and decades of ad hoc, usually political, decisions. This comes along with a guarantee that no district will lose aid from one year to the next – the so-called “hold harmless” clause.
As a result of these decisions, longstanding inequities are baked into the system. Due to the hold harmless clause, districts that lost student population didn’t lose funding. As the enrollment and needs of other districts grew, their state aid didn’t keep up. Districts became more reliant on the property tax to fund schools.
“We are the fifth most underfunded district in the state but have the sixth highest tax burden,” said Pottstown’s Rodriguez.
David Mosenkis, a statistician affiliated with the faith-based advocacy group POWER, first showed in 2014 that Pennsylvania’s method for distributing school aid had a discriminatory impact based on race.
At this meeting, Mosenkis said his new analysis shows that since the adoption of the formula and the decision to apply it only to new aid instead of the whole pot, the funding inequities in Pennsylvania have only gotten worse.
The whitest districts get $2,200 per student more of basic education funding than the formula says they deserve, and those that are less white get $2,100 less than their fair share, Mosenkis has calculated. “We are choosing every year to perpetuate systemic racial bias,” he said.
By way of illustration, Mosenkis brought several transparent jars with him onstage, one filled with brown water and the other containing clear water. Mosenkis poured a little clear water into the brown water. “The clean water is helping a little, but the drinking water is just getting more polluted,” he said.
David Lapp of Research for Action said that it is preparing a report showing that Pennsylvania’s white students are in the top five states when it comes to opportunity, including access to such resources as Advanced Placement courses, calculus and physics, dual enrollment with colleges, gifted and talented programs, and disciplinary policies that avoid suspension in favor of restorative justice. At the same time, he said, the Commonwealth’s black students are in the bottom five states in terms of access to opportunity.
“That’s the first time I’ve heard that statistic,” said State Rep. Mike Sturla, a Democrat from Lancaster County. “That takes away … that really starts to take it home.”
He and other legislators said that they understand the problem, but that solving it will not be easy. Sturla said some of his legislative colleagues think that fairness means that each district gets the same amount of state aid regardless of the need or poverty level.
For many of them, he said, some of the school districts within their legislative districts would gain while others would lose funding if the formula were applied to all the aid, and they don’t want to face that problem. Some mid-state representatives’ constituencies include dozens of school districts, each with its own demographic trends and economic conditions.
Those legislators “are the toughest to convince,” Sturla said. “They don’t talk about this issue. They say their constituents don’t understand it.”
Rabb, a Philadelphia Democrat, has introduced legislation that would push the entire basic education allotment – more than $6 billion – through the formula. But that alone is not the answer, he said. The problem, he said, is that the overall pie is not big enough.
Although the distribution method is unfair, he said after the session, “the 800-pound gorilla in the room is that we need significantly more money. We are not getting significant revenues to support a 21st-century educational system.”
Advocates echoed that position. Mosenkis said, “It is not a choice between equity and adequacy. Of course, we need a big enough pie to distribute so everyone has what they need.”
Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center and Deborah Gordon Klehr of the Education Law Center said that simply doing what Rabb proposes will also lead to some injustices.
“I don’t think it is the right thing to do. It will hurt many poor districts,” Churchill said. The right thing to do, he said, is to grow the pot of education aid.
That is also a tough sell. Some legislators continue to believe that spending more will not improve student outcomes, feeling that school districts waste funds. They have refused to increase taxes, including on natural gas production in the western part of the state, as Gov. Wolf has sought to do.
“It’s a morally repugnant question: Does money matter?” said State Rep. Michael Zabel, a Democrat from Delaware County.
The superintendents who spoke said that they would welcome accountability for additional funds.
“Give us the money, and we’ll show you the results,” said Upper Darby Superintendent Daniel McGarry.
The fair funding lawsuit is scheduled to be heard in the summer of 2020, and any changes resulting from that eventual decision could be many years away.
Rabb and State Rep. Joseph Hohenstein, a Democrat representing Philadelphia, said they were trying to emphasize the urgency of the issue.
“We can’t be dealing with incremental solutions,” Hohenstein said. “The urgency is what struck me. We can’t keep losing a generation of kids.”