Aim­ing to­ward fair fund­ing for schools in Pa.

The Boyertown Area Times - - OPINION -

With slow but steady progress, fair fund­ing for Penn­syl­va­nia schools moved along in 2018, inch­ing to­ward a res­o­lu­tion that would make pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion eq­ui­table across the com­mon­wealth.

As 2019 be­gins, we con­tinue our push to keep the ef­fort on track with hopes for a fin­ish line some­where down the road.

The ef­fort is be­ing led by schools in the five-county re­gion sur­round­ing Philadel­phia. Most no­tably in this re­gion are the par­ents in the Wil­liam Penn School District in Delaware County who ini­ti­ated a law­suit against the state De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion and district lead­ers in the Pottstown School District in Mont­gomery County who tire­lessly sound the call for re­form.

The Wil­liam Penn law­suit took a step for­ward in Au­gust, 2018, when Com­mon­wealth Court re­jected mo­tions filed on be­half of state Se­nate Pres­i­dent Pro-Tem­pore Joseph Scar­nati and House Speaker Mike Turzai who claimed the 2014 law­suit was moot af­ter the leg­is­la­ture passed a fair fund­ing for­mula in 2016.

In a four-page opin­ion, Judge Robert Simp­son said it was clear that a “dis­pute about the sig­nif­i­cance and ad­e­quacy of the fund­ing changes … per­sists.”

The fair fund­ing for­mula takes into ac­count lo­cal fac­tors like spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion pop­u­la­tion and lo­cal prop­erty tax ef­fort, but the pay­off to the dis­tricts that would ben­e­fit from the for­mula was cur­tailed by the pro­vi­sion that only new ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing be distributed that way.

Us­ing this method, it could take as long as 20 years for some dis­tricts to reach par­ity.

Ag­gra­vat­ing the sit­u­a­tion was a 2017 study by the ad­vo­cacy group POWER which found that, in­ten­tional or not, Penn­syl­va­nia’s ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing has a bias against com­mu­ni­ties with high mi­nor­ity pop­u­la­tions, even when the poverty lev­els are the same.

“I doubt very much this sit­u­a­tion ex­ists by de­sign,” said re­searcher David Mosenkis. “I don’t think peo­ple got to­gether in a back room and said ‘let’s dis­crim­i­nate against stu­dents of color.’ … But now that we have shone a light on its ex­is­tence, now that we know there is a sys­temic bias that fa­vors white pop­u­la­tions, there is no ex­cuse for not fix­ing it.”

This rev­e­la­tion fur­ther mo­ti­vated Pottstown Schools Su­per­in­ten­dent Stephen Ro­driguez and mem­bers of the Pottstown School Board to step up their ad­vo­cacy in Har­ris­burg.

“This ab­so­lutely angers me,” said Ro­driguez. “It angers me for what op­por­tu­ni­ties it is rob­bing from our stu­dents and it angers me for the eco­nomic bur­den it is putting on this com­mu­nity.”

The drum­beat of protest con­tin­ued through 2018, gain­ing some trac­tion. In May, a flurry of bills was in­tro­duced in the Gen­eral Assem­bly, all aimed at fur­ther em­pow­er­ing the fair fund­ing for­mula and putting its pro­vi­sion to work more widely and more quickly.

In Au­gust, state rep­re­sen­ta­tives Tom Quigley and Tim Hen­nessey jointly in­tro­duced a bill that would al­lo­cate 75 per­cent of all new Ba­sic Ed­u­ca­tion Fund­ing pro­por­tion­ately to the un­der­funded school dis­tricts and the re­main­ing 25 per­cent of all new Ba­sic Ed­u­ca­tion Fund­ing to all 500 school dis­tricts through the stu­dent-weighted Ba­sic Ed­u­ca­tion For­mula.

If en­acted, the bill, which also had the sup­port of state Sen. Bob Men­sch, R-24th Dist., would speed up the pace at which un­der­funded dis­tricts catch up to their wealth­ier neigh­bors.

The dis­tri­bu­tion of ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing through the fair fund­ing for­mula re­mains just 8 per­cent in the cur­rent year’s bud­get de­spite Gov. Tom Wolf’s en­dorse­ment of a more eq­ui­table method.

While Ro­driguez and other school lead­ers pres­sure the leg­is­la­ture, pe­ti­tion­ers in the Wil­liam Penn law­suit look to the courts to rem­edy the sit­u­a­tion. Dan Ack­els­berg of the Pub­lic In­ter­est Law Cen­ter, which rep­re­sents the pe­ti­tion­ers, told Dig­i­tal First Me­dia in Au­gust that the suit has al­ways been about chal­leng­ing the sys­tem.

“One statute change does not change that fail­ure, that sys­tem,” he said. “This has al­ways been a chal­lenge to the sys­tem and the leg­is­la­ture’s fail­ure to ad­e­quately fund pub­lic schools. … We look for­ward to chil­dren across the com­mon­wealth get­ting their days in court.”

As we be­gin 2019, we await the day in court that forces the leg­is­la­ture to prop­erly fund schools. Ev­ery child is en­ti­tled by the state con­sti­tu­tion to an ed­u­ca­tion. We look for­ward to the fin­ish line that will make that a real­ity.

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