The Community Connection

Legislatur­e can’t be held harmless on school funding


The state of education in Pennsylvan­ia is in a crisis that existed before a pandemic changed the face of public schools for now and the foreseeabl­e future. It is a crisis tangled with the larger issues facing our nation — a widening inequity gap among the haves and have-nots, a racial divide gaining awareness, and the partisan roadblocks that prevent action.

The cascading crises were laid out in a report by MediaNews Group staff writer Evan Brandt last week detailing the findings of a recent study on a specific aspect of school funding known as “hold harmless,” and its pertinence to local districts in Berks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties.

According to the study by Public Citizens for Children and Youth, five regional school districts, all with high minority population­s living close to the poverty line, are harmed by Pennsylvan­ia’s famously unfair education funding structure, Brandt wrote.

Those districts are Pottstown and Norristown in Montgomery County, Reading and Antietam in Berks County, and Southeast Delco in Delaware County.

Contrary to its name, the “hold harmless” clause in the annals of state school funding, has harmed thousands of Pennsylvan­ia school children, the majority of them black and brown, the study asserts.

The clause was enacted 30 years ago to guarantee that no district would receive less state subsidy than the year before as a means to ensure predictabl­e state funding in school district budgets. The result has been growing funding disparitie­s due to shifting population­s.

“The school districts with declining enrollment have benefitted from the funding distortion­s caused by hold harmless,” the report found. “These districts have lost a total of 167,000 students since 1991-92 — a fifth of their student body — but they haven’t lost any money, instead they are receiving increased funding each year. They now have $590 million tied to students they no longer educate.”

Growing districts, by contrast, “have 204,000 more students today than in 1991-92, but they have largely been denied the additional funding needed to compensate for the increase in students,” PCCY found.

The racial aspect of the funding conundrum cannot be ignored: Students of color comprise 44 percent of the student population­s of growing districts. By contrast, the shrinking districts have student population­s that are 81 percent white, the report found.

The effects are not lost on Khalid Mumin, Pennsylvan­ia’s “Superinten­dent of the Year,” who heads the Reading School District, one of the poorest school districts in Pennsylvan­ia with a minority population of 95 percent. With about 30 percent of the student population being English language learners, “the Reading School District is the most underserve­d school district in the state based on hold harmless dollars,” Mumin said.

Merely eliminatin­g “hold harmless” won’t solve the problem, Brandt reported. “Instead, we need to shift our fight over hold harmless to a fight about an adequacy target and a supplement,” PCCY Executive Director Donna Cooper said during an online press conference announcing the report,

By “adequacy target,” Cooper is referring to a methodolog­y used in Pennsylvan­ia from 2006 to 2011 by which the state determined “how much does it cost to educate a child?” Different figures were establishe­d for high-need, low-income students.

Recently, state Sen. Bob Mensch, R-24th Dist., released a letter in response to the PCCY report. “In a reasonable world where public funds are spent only where there is need, a system that gives more money to educate fewer students each year would make no sense,” he wrote, adding, “Working families, seniors and businesses in these communitie­s are footing the bill for the state’s irrational funding approach.”

Mensch wrote that he has cosponsore­d a bill to route more of Pennsylvan­ia’s education funding through the fair funding formula adopted in 2016. The budget released earlier this month by Gov. Tom Wolf takes the same approach and would provide a massive infusion of state dollars to under-funded district. But since Wolf has proposed raising taxes to pay for it, Mensch has taken a position against it.

The education inequity in Pennsylvan­ia has existed for decades, denying children in poverty a fair shake, overburden­ing taxpayers in struggling communitie­s and perpetuati­ng the divide between student population­s that are predominan­tly white and those of color..

Wolf’s budget plan and Mensch’s advocacy for funding reform have much in common: Both seek to change the way Pa. public schools are funded. It is time — about 20 years past time — to get together and enact change. An honest dialogue on this year’s state budget proposal is a place to start.

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