(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from guest writer Michael Churchill. Churchill is a staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia.)
While politicians and advocates are celebrating the legislature’s passage last week of a student-based, fair formula for distributing new school funds, it is important to understand this reality: Our school funding system is as unconstitutional today as it was last week.
Much about the formula is worthy of praise. Among other things, it will thankfully end the era in which funding went to districts based on close relationships to the leadership of the General Assembly. And in distributing new money to districts, it will use accurate information about the number of students and their needs, giving extra funds for students in poverty or learning English, and giving extra help to districts with lower capacity to raise money locally. This is a decided improvement.
But the formula is only a baby step toward what is needed. It does not address the inadequate amount of funding available to districts struggling to meet state-set proficiency standards. It does not address the vast inequities that exist from district to district. Indeed the formula locks in those inequities because it only addresses how new funding is distributed. It never asks what schools need in order to meet state standards.
What the formula lacks led to the current harsh reality in Pennsylvania: If districts don’t have enough state support, the burden falls to local taxpayers to make up the difference. More than anything else, it is this central fact that leads to Pennsylvania’s school funding status as the most inequitable in the nation. Wealthy districts can easily raise the amounts needed, poor districts cannot, and the resources a student has are heavily dependent on the zip code in which he or she is born. This was our reality before the fair funding formula was passed, and it is our reality now.
This state of affairs must be measured against the state constitution’s Education Clause, which mandates that the legislature “support” schools, which at a minimum requires they have the resources necessary for students to meet academic standards set by the state itself; and the state constitution’s equal protection clause, which requires there be a rational basis for any difference in public funding between districts.
The way the new formula locks in inequality can be seen by looking at the Erie School District, the state’s seventh-largest. Last year, Erie received $59 million from the state for basic education. The formula says Erie — with high concentrated poverty and 1,200 English language learners — should be receiving 1.695 percent of the $5.7 billion spent on basic education funding in Pennsylvania, or almost $97 million. This would be almost $38 million more than Erie is currently receiving. But because the formula will apply only to new money, the $38 million shortfall in the existing level of appropriation won’t be made up. So year in and year out, Erie will receive $38 million less in state money than what the state itself says it should be entitled to. To add insult to injury, the new formula continues to give new money to districts that have “more” of the state distribution than the state says is a fair share.
But even the $97 million of funding does not tell you what Erie actually needs to teach its nearly 14,000 students: That would only be Erie’s fair share of the present level of state education funding. According to a report by the Public Interest Law Center issued earlier this month, using the funding formula’s own numbers, the state needs to invest an additional $3.2 billion to enable all districts to meet the needs of their students. On that basis, Erie needs, at minimum, $150 million from the state, or two-and-a-half times the $59 million it currently receives. Providing that funding to a district like Erie would not only give it the resources it needs, it would also fix both of our constitutional deficiencies by giving children the educational opportunities they deserve, no matter where they live.
For Philadelphia, a fair share of the current level of state funding would mean $331 million more from the state (which amounts to $ 1,631 per student), while truly adequate funding would require an additional $752 million ($3,704 per student).
It is a positive development that the legislature is committed to distributing funding in a fairer manner than before. But the absence of any commitment to increasing the funding to the level needed — or even to redressing the current unfair distribution of state funding — means advocates cannot cheer too loudly. Until Pennsylvania makes a commitment to increase funding so that school districts have adequate funding to meet the actual cost of providing the teachers, books, computers, counselors, nurses and other resources necessary for students to meet state standards, the system will remain unconstitutional.