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DN Editorial: Formula follows function

In Pa. education funding, don’t resize the slices, increase the pie.

Students press City Council to provide the school district with additional funding to avoid more than 1,000 layoffs.
Students press City Council to provide the school district with additional funding to avoid more than 1,000 layoffs.Read moreTOM GRALISH / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

NEW GOV. Wolf has made increasing state aid to public education one of his priorities, but to do anything about it now would be putting the cart before the horse.

Before the debate begins in Harrisburg over how much to give the public schools, a decision should be made on the formula by which the money is handed out.

A special commission is looking into the matter and its recommendations are due in June. One thing everyone agrees on is that the current method is out-of-date and unfair. In fact, it isn't really even a formula.

As a recent study from Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative pointed out, Pennsylvania is one of only three states that does not have a comprehensive school-finance formula to distribute state money to local school districts.

Since the early 1990s the state has used what is called a "hold harmless" system, whereby a district is guaranteed the same amount of money it got the year before, with any increases in state aid simply tacked on.

It sounds simple, but that's the problem. It is too simple. The formula remains the same whether a district's enrollment goes up or down. It does not take into account such factors as the poverty or special needs of students or a district's wealth.

It also doesn't take into account the high costs that increasing charter-school enrollment has on districts, especially Philadelphia's. Those costs were exacerbated when the state eliminated reimbursements to districts for money they are mandated to spend on charter students.

What Pennsylvania needs is an up-to-date formula that takes into account the factors mentioned above.

A new formula would bring some sense and fairness to state aid to local districts, but no one should think that it will solve all the problems that plague districts.

What is needed, quite frankly, is more state money for local schools.

Both politically and as a matter of fairness, changing how the pie is cut won't do. It simply creates a new list of winners and losers.

An injection of more state aid is the only path to true fairness.

There's a case to be made that Pennsylvania isn't doing its fair share. Last week's Pew study found that, on average, states provide 46.2 percent of the cost of running public schools. In Pennsylvania that figure is 35.2 percent, among the lowest of any state in the nation.

Wolf has said he wants to bring the state's share closer to 50 percent of the cost. But that is a bridge too far right now. Raising state aid to the 50 percent mark would cost billions of dollars. And state government is facing an estimated $2.3 billion deficit this year.

Not only does it lack the money to increase aid to education, unless something is done to erase the deficit it will have to cut the education budget - along with the budgets of most other state departments.

No one wants that to happen, but the only way to avoid it is to hope for a miracle or face reality and increase taxes.

In his campaign, Wolf mentioned making changes in the state's 3.07 percent personal income tax. He also wants to impose an extraction tax on natural gas drilling.

We prefer a comprehensive look at taxes and exemptions for businesses and individuals.

Getting to "yes" on any of these requires the legislature to do something it hates to do: face reality. And the reality is that our schools need more money and a fair formula.