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Six takeaways from the first week of hearings to change Pa.’s school funding system

The scope of the challenge was on display both in terms of dollars, and how to distribute them.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes speaks during a news conference outside the Philadelphia School District headquarters before the Basic Education Funding Commission hearing Thursday. Lawmakers have been holding hearings on the state of school funding across Pennsylvania.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes speaks during a news conference outside the Philadelphia School District headquarters before the Basic Education Funding Commission hearing Thursday. Lawmakers have been holding hearings on the state of school funding across Pennsylvania.Read moreHeather Khalifa / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania lawmakers kicked off their hearings this week on how to change the state’s unconstitutional school funding system, and the scope of the challenge was on display: both in terms of dollars and how to distribute them, and the urgency of the needs facing schools.

Along with testimony that Pennsylvania schools are underfunded by $6.2 billion, superintendents and policy experts noted ways in which even that figure fell short, particularly in poor districts bearing the brunt of the funding problem. Meanwhile, lawmakers questioned how the state would foot the bill.

Here’s what to know from the first week of the Basic Education Funding Commission’s hearings, which run through November.

Aging school buildings need to be addressed

Penn State professor Matthew Kelly’s new $6 billion estimate for how much more money school districts need drew skepticism from Republicans. But the figure still doesn’t include significant costs — including facilities.

Superintendents who testified this week highlighted how aging infrastructure was hurting their students. In Allentown, where two-thirds of district buildings are more than 50 years old, including a dozen that are more than 100 years old, the district dismissed three hours early on each of the four days the week before, due to inadequate air-conditioning, said Superintendent Carol Birks. That’s 12 hours of missed learning, Birks said.

Birks also said more students have left for charter schools in neighborhoods where the district’s elementary schools are old.

That met with some pushback from Republicans. Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R., York), the commission’s cochair, said that “old infrastructure isn’t necessarily bad infrastructure,” and referred to a school that had been named a National Blue Ribbon School several years ago that was more than 100 years old.

“I know it can be done,” she said.

The ‘fair funding’ formula isn’t used for most school aid

Pennsylvania has a “fair funding formula” to distribute money to schools, based on the relative needs of their students. Adopted in 2016, it was meant to account for inequity between rich and poor districts. But it doesn’t get applied to most state aid to schools.

On Wednesday, an expert quantified just how limited an impact it’s had.

Less than 13% of all state education funding — and less than 5% of total education funding — comes through the formula, said Mike Griffith, senior researcher and policy analyst at the Learning Policy Institute.

Looking just at “basic education funding” — the main pot of state aid to schools — the formula will account for one-third of money given out this year. But it would take seven years of continued historic funding increases for that share to reach 50% — and 50 years for the formula to account for 50% of all of Pennsylvania’s school funding, Griffith said.

Some of the reason is Pennsylvania’s heavy reliance on local taxes to fund schools. The other piece: its “hold harmless” policy. To ensure that no districts lost money under the formula, lawmakers guaranteed each district would continue to receive the same amount of state aid as it had in 2014-15, with subsequent increases distributed through the formula.

States often adopt such policies as a way to transition to a new formula without penalizing districts. But they usually phase them out, Griffith said.

In New Jersey, which has been going through that process, the drawdown has been “difficult for some districts,” said Danielle Farrie, research director for the Education Law Center of New Jersey.

Raising school funds may mean raising taxes

How Pennsylvania might come up with another $6 billion wasn’t discussed in expert testimony, but lawmakers brought it up.

Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill) said that if he asked his constituents “if we should double the state income tax” or sales tax, “I suspect they’d say no.”

Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia) said that Pennsylvania was “sitting on a budget surplus of $8 billion” and $5 billion in its Rainy Day Fund — suggesting the state had the money to invest.

Phillips-Hill noted that much of the surplus is due to one-time federal pandemic money, warning against “making the exact same mistake” as some districts. (Panther Valley Superintendent David McAndrew had told the commission the district — one of the funding lawsuit’s plaintiffs — would have had to cut art, music, and athletic programs had it not spent COVID money on salaries.)

Rep. Mike Sturla (D., Lancaster), the commission’s other cochair, said there could be a tax trade-off: Maybe Pennsylvania increases income taxes by 1 percentage point — a shift Sturla said would generate $4 billion — enabling some high-taxing communities to lower local levies.

“There’s a chance you’re going to get a lower school property tax,” Pennsylvania’s income tax would remain relatively low, “and by the way, the schools are going to get funded,” Sturla said.

The needs of underfunded districts are urgent

Fatoumata Sidibe, a senior at Bodine High, a magnet school in Philadelphia, loves her school, but said it’s sometimes tough to attend.

“We’re required to invest so much time with little effort given back to us with support for our success,” Sidibe said during Thursday’s hearing in Philadelphia. “We don’t even have a library, or a cafeteria, two bare minimum things that kids need to get through the day. We shouldn’t have to go through so much just to get an underfunded education.”

School counselor Ashley Cocca, who works at Bache-Martin Elementary School in Philadelphia’s Fairmount section, said she doesn’t have enough resources to help her students with the complicated issues they bring to school — trauma that is “nuanced and subtle. It is the backdrop of Philadelphia life. It is the water we are swimming in.”

Philadelphia and other low-wealth districts need more school counselors to help children cope with that trauma, Cocca said, and more support staff to ensure counselors can simply work with students and not get pulled to work lunch duty or cover teachers’ classes.

“We are not a throwaway city,” said Cocca, who grew emotional as she recounted Philadelphia students’ and educators’ realities. “If I-95 can burn down and be rebuilt within weeks, I have to believe there’s money out there. We just need to get on the priority list. A city that’s been burning in trauma can be rebuilt, too.”

Consolidating school districts could reduce inequity

Some lawmakers indicated they saw Pennsylvania’s multitude of school districts — 500 — as a problem.

“Splitting our districts up into these little fiefdoms is not working,” said Rep. Jesse Topper (R., Bedford), who asked about consolidation and shared services.

Research has shown consolidation doesn’t reduce school district costs, though it would reduce inequity, said Griffith. Still, that’s “very unpopular with local voters” in wealthier communities, which can generate large amounts of revenue for their schools at lower tax rates than poorer communities.

Topper said Pennsylvania has “done the politically expedient thing for some time,” and that regionalization “has to be addressed.”

The process shouldn’t wait for another budget cycle

Lawyers for the funding plaintiffs said they understood the problem wouldn’t be fixed in a year.

But “it can’t wait for 10 years,” said Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, senior attorney at the Public Interest Law Center. “We’ve already had one budget cycle pass since the decision. We believe there has to be an urgency.”

Exactly what amount of time would suffice may depend on the scope of the changes, Urevick-Ackelsberg said: Lawmakers could propose a two-year solution, but if the funding is inadequate, “it’s irrelevant.”

And if the timeline isn’t reasonable, “we will be going back into court,” said Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center.