By Neil D. Theobald

In 1866, the architect of New York City's Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, was asked to come to San Francisco and re-create Central Park on a windswept expanse of sand dunes near the future Golden Gate Bridge. Olmsted's response accurately describes, I believe, the task facing the Pennsylvania Basic Education Funding Commission:

"The conditions are so peculiar and the difficulties so great that I regard the problem as unique. It must be solved, if at all, by wholly new means and methods. It requires invention, not adaptation."

Olmsted knew that a successful plan designed for one location can't necessarily be duplicated in another. Just as the Golden Gate is not uptown Manhattan, Philadelphia is not Phoenix, Pittsburgh is not Portland, and the history of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is not the history of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Pennsylvania is unique and it will benefit immensely from a school-funding formula that focuses solely on its problems and concerns.

For 15 years prior to entering university administration, I directed two research centers - first at the University of Washington and then at Indiana University - that helped the States of Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Washington invent state-funding formulas that responded to the unique issues and problems that existed in those five states. This work is never easy, and the solutions developed by the commission will be only a first step in what will be a multiyear process to develop a fair, efficient, adequate, and stable system of financing for Pennsylvania's public schools. But, I know from experience that solutions can be found.

To maximize the chances of success, I have two overarching pieces of advice for the commission.

First, while I am sure that the commission is being urged to address a broad range of issues, my experience is that complicated school-funding systems are nearly impossible to explain to parents, school personnel, and other voters. I have repeatedly seen that when people don't understand a system, they tend to mistrust what is being done. If at all possible, the commission should identify the two or three most important issues and then demonstrate the discipline to focus their solutions within these critical areas.

Second, the commission needs to develop specific measures for each issue that can be updated annually to inform decision-makers about the progress being made. Difficulties that have been created over decades cannot be solved in a year or two. Easily understood metrics of progress are valuable in both monitoring the legislative changes and making midcourse corrections, and explaining to stakeholders what is occurring.

In brief, here are the three central questions the commission must answer followed by my suggestions for addressing them:

How much funding per student should each district be guaranteed? The commission can estimate the total state and local funds it must guarantee to each school district through a two-step process. First, find the median spending of Pennsylvania school districts that meet state academic standards. Then, adjust this amount for each district based on student demographics and district characteristics. The goal must be that local control becomes a choice between having adequate funding and having more-than-adequate revenue. If a district decides it doesn't want to pass any property tax levies - whether because of an aging population or a population that sends its kids to private schools - then the district can't be put in a position where this choice results in inadequate funding for the education of the district's students.

Who should provide this funding? In general, Americans express a preference for local decision-making because it makes for more responsive government. Such local decision-making should include providing taxing authority to the School District of Philadelphia so it can raise revenues, most likely through a local property tax.

How quickly should these changes occur? Unlimited "hold harmless provisions," which freeze current revenue allocations in place, can have the effect of never allowing a new funding system to have a chance to work. My experience is that school districts have the capacity to "shrink gracefully" if they are given a five-year schedule of the spending levels they must attain.

I urge the commission to propose substantive change to Pennsylvania's school-funding system. The current context provides a wonderful opportunity for the state legislature and education stakeholders to consider and enact a funding formula that will provide adequate and fair funding to Pennsylvania's school districts.