News Column

How to create fair public school funding? 4 questions committee faces

August 21, 2014

By Charles Thompson, The Patriot-News, Harrisburg, Pa.



Aug. 21--Pennsylvania's next attempt to build a public school funding formula that is fair to all kicked off Wednesday.

And in what might be considered a mild upset, discussion largely steered clear of the vigorous "who cut education funding" debate that's been one of the dominant themes of the current gubernatorial campaign to date.

Most of the Basic Education Funding Commission's work day centered instead on a detailed outline of the overall state of public education in Pennsylvania, and the great variance in its 500 school districts' size and wealth.

The commission was established by law in June to make recommendations on retooling the state's main school funding formula, which this year will drive more than $5.5 billion to the schools.

Its recommendations are not due until next June.

But there were hints at some of the pivot points for the year-long discussion to come. Here's a few observations for students, parents, teachers and taxpayers to keep in mind as the discussion goes forward:

What defines wealth?

Pennsylvania's main helping of state aid for classroom education has relied for years on a determination of a school district's relative wealth, and its projected ability to pay its own freight through local taxes.

But the definition of wealth is currently skewed more heavily toward property valuations. Some say personal incomes are a better barometer of how much more a given school district should expect its residents to pay.

At least one Democrat, one Republican and one education establishment voice all signalled early interest Wednesday in basing future aid formulas more on residents' income streams.

There have been cities, House Democrat Education Committee director Chris Wakeley noted, where state aid ratios are declining due to increased real estate valuations even as personal income earned by residents has been stagnant.

On its face, "It (income) seems to be probably the cleanest indication of the cash flow available for paying taxes," Sen. Pat Browne, the Senate Republican Whip from Lehigh County and a commission co-chair, agreed.

Paying for teachers, not students?

Browne and others also suggested discussion on transferring the existing funding formula's emphasis on student enrollments to a new paradigm: the "teacher unit."

The thinking goes like this:

If a school has a classroom of 27 students and it gets six new kids, now all of a sudden, administrators there may say they need to staff a second classroom. That's a new cost center, requiring a new teacher and, likely, a boost in aid.

"At least financially it makes sense to ask, if your district gains six students and they can be accommodated in the existing cost center (the classroom), is it necessary to have additional funding," Browne said.

"But if they gain enough students that they have to build additional capacity" and hire a new teacher, then maybe that should become the trigger point for an increase in state aid.

Once paid, always paid?

Under the state's traditional "hold harmless" provision, districts -- even those with steadily declining enrollments -- don't get cuts in basic education subsidies.

That's been a bone of contention for many lawmakers, like those in York and Lancaster counties, whose say aid to Pennsylvania's growing districts is shorted because of the inability to make cuts elsewhere.

Commission members stated their desire to revisit this issue at an organizational meeting last month.

Wednesday, Rep. Donna Oberlander, the House Republican delegate from Clarion County, give a pointed defense of the "hold harmless" provisions and said she would vote against any recommendation to kill them.

Oberlander noted in many rural communities, schools double as community centers. So even as student enrollment declines, districts depend on a stable state funding to help pay the fixed costs required to keep a building operational.

"I will guard against a new formula that hurts districts that have justifiably relied on the hold harmless provision," she said.

Senate Democrat delegate Andrew Dinniman, D-Chester County, home to several of those growing districts, pushed back gently, telling Oberlander that hold harmless is an issue "some of us would like to discuss."

A survey of school administrators on funding issues introduced by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, meanwhile, revealed the divide on the "hold harmless" issue across the state, with 56.2 percent of respondents saying such provisions should be eliminated.

What governor's race?

On this day anyway, commission members seemed eager to steer clear of the election-year rhetoric dominating the school funding issue.

Republicans and Democrats seemed to work hard to agree to disagree on the issue of whether Gov. Tom Corbett cut aid to education, and instead accepted the notion that there's plenty of bipartisan blame to go around for Pennsylvania's persistent funding equity problems.

"That's the purpose of this commission," Acting Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq said at one point. "I think we all want to learn from the mistakes we've made."

The commission's proposals are non-binding, but are expected to receive serious consideration in a state where school funding has been a problem issue for many years.

Browne said the bipartisan commission is tentatively scheduled to meet next on Sept. 9 in the Lehigh Valley, at a site to be determined.

___

(c)2014 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.)

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