By Christen Smith
HARRISBURG (Aug. 26) — Eleven “circuit riders” will deploy across the state Wednesday on a year-long mission to educate school district officials about the need for a fair and predictable basic education funding formula in Pennsylvania.
The riders — current and former superintendents and executive directors, themselves — will share all there is to know about the state’s history of education funding, “principles and models of good school funding systems, and effective advocacy strategies,” in an effort to galvanize the support of superintendents, business managers and school board representatives statewide.
What the riders won’t do, however, is define what a fair and predictable formula looks like.
“The message is very clear across Pennsylvania, there are a lot of inequities,” said Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Board Officials, during a phone call with reporters Tuesday. “The current funding formula does not lend itself to an equitable funding system. Our role isn’t to find where those dollars will come from. Our mission isn’t to identify formula parameters. We’re just not at that point yet.”
The riders, using information gathered by the Basic Education Funding Campaign, will focus on spreading awareness about the economic factors driving the inequities of the state’s current funding mechanism — a system which promises school districts the same amount of state aid from the year before (the hold-harmless provision) plus whatever additional dollars districts draw down through state supplements, such as Gov. Tom Corbett’s Ready to Learn Block Grant or extra money set aside for small school districts or districts with high rates of poverty.
Patricia Sanker, a circuit rider and former South Middleton School District Superintendent in Cumberland County, said a district’s relative wealth — defined by a calculation that combines property values and personal incomes — impacts the educational opportunities, such as full-day kindergarten, available to individual students.
For school districts who rely heavily on state aid each year, cuts in education spending — such as the loss of $655 million in federal stimulus dollars in 2011 — produced a drop in state spending per student by as much as $1,000. Wealthier districts, who can raise revenue through local tax increases, lost around $100 per student in state funding.
And the state’s current “Band-Aid” approach to fixing those funding inequities — by awarding supplements to districts who can’t grow their tax base or who have high concentrations of children living in poverty, for example — just create more problems than they fix, officials say.
“Supplements that just affect some school districts are not an answer,” said Joe Bard, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools. “We need something that addresses all school districts. Supplements do not do that.”
“The base amount of money that is allocated is not really responsive to school districts across the state, particularly if you look at high-growth districts,” said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. “(The districts) that have seen dramatic growth over the last 10 to 15 years, they’ve gotten very little additional money. The supplements are just insufficient to make up for the major changes in enrollments in populations.”
“The process is broken,” said Larry Feinberg, a circuit rider and school director for Haverford School District in Delaware County. “Every year, we go through our budgeting exercise and we hold our breath and wait to see” what the district will get from the state.
So while the riders will spend the next year updating school officials about what has created the state’s funding inequities, the Basic Education Funding Commission will develop a new formula designed to fix the problems and ensure the “fair, equitable” distribution of state aid.
The riders will each receive a $25,000 stipend and paid travel expenses, funded through grant money collected by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, the William Penn Foundation, the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, and the Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units.
“Great progress has been made this year with the governor and secretary of education admitting the need to change the way state dollars are distributed to support schools, and with the creation of a legislative commission to make recommendations for a new formula,” Buckheit said. “However, the disparities in state support for schools across Pennsylvania are well documented and the components of an equitable funding formula are well studied. Now is the time for action to ensure we fix the problem.”