School funding overhaul is a chance to fix old flaws in an inequitable system, advocates say

The state Legislature’s Basic Education Funding Commission kicks off a series of ten hearings next week

By: - September 7, 2023 5:06 pm
Students, families, and education advocates join Children First and Education Voters of Pennsylvania to host a rally on the Capitol steps to “ring the bells of justice,” and call for equitable funding for Pennsylvania public schools. The rally, which took place Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, occurred on the first day of the landmark trial that could change how Pennsylvania funds its 500 school districts. (Capital-Star photo by Marley Parish)

Students, families, and education advocates join Children First and Education Voters of Pennsylvania to host a rally on the Capitol steps, Nov. 12, 2021, the first day of the landmark trial that changed how Pennsylvania funds its 500 school districts. (Capital-Star photo by Marley Parish)

Pennsylvania lawmakers will embark on a historic effort this fall to reform the commonwealth’s education funding system that a state court earlier this year declared unconstitutional.

Public education advocates said Thursday that to succeed in drafting a blueprint for an equitable funding system, the General Assembly’s Basic Education Funding Commission must expand its scope and correct past flaws in its work.

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“We’re very excited about the opportunity to inform the commission and make sure that they tackle the root challenges that were skirted in the last commission,” Donna Cooper, executive director of Children First PA, said. “It didn’t quite finish the job. This one can do that.”

Education funding has been a top issue for lawmakers and Gov. Josh Shapiro in his first year in office. 

In February, Commonwealth Court President Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer ruled in a lawsuit by fair education funding advocates that the state’s reliance on property taxes to fund public education puts children in poor communities at a disadvantage. The system is unconstitutional, Jubelirer said, and ordered lawmakers to fix it.

The 15-member Basic Education Funding Commission, which will hold the first three of ten hearings in Allentown on Tuesday, Harrisburg on Wednesday, and Philadelphia on Thursday, is made up of three Democrats and three Republicans from each chamber of the General Assembly and three members of Shapiro’s administration.

They include the chairpersons of the House and Senate Education Committees, Rep. Pete Schweyer, D-Lehigh, and Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, and Deputy Education Secretaries Marcus Delgado and Angela Fitterer and Natalie Krug, the director of budget analysis in the governor’s budget office. 

The commission must submit a report by Nov. 30.

When the commission last convened in 2014, it was tasked with undoing the damage done to education funding during Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration, Cooper said.

The commission established a fair funding formula that directs more state money to districts that cannot raise adequate funds through property taxes. 

Although Cooper said the formula is among the best in the country, it applies to less than 20% of the $7 billion that is distributed to Pennsylvania. In a compromise that protected school districts from losing state funding under the new formula, it applied only to new funding from 2016 onward.

“The result is, as was explained in the lawsuit, many school districts are underfunded,” Cooper said. 

Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, said that for the formula to work correctly, the funding commission’s plan must establish a level of adequate funding for each school district based on student needs and the level of funding in well-performing school districts.

“The legislature already has a method for calculating these targets and they’ve recently been updated. So this is not reinventing the wheel,” she said.

The commission needs to expand its scope beyond basic education funding — the portion of the state’s school aid that pays for regular K-12 education — to include special education, facilities and transportation.

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“The court found … that local school districts were shortchanged in these areas, and that these different areas are really what contribute to an adequate and equitable education for all students,” Spicka said.

Because less wealthy school districts are unable to raise revenue to meet adequate funding targets without unreasonable burdens on taxpayers, Spicka said the state must determine its fair share of overall funding to close the gaps.

The commission must also establish a timeline to provide its share of funding to meet the targets and implement a new funding formula in three to five years, Spicka said.

“This is not a moment when they can kick the can down the road and just say, ‘well we’ll work on this in the future,’” she said.

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.