Much of the reaction to the Basic Education Funding Commission’s final report has been positive—and for good reason. The commission proposed a formula that finally distributes funds based on enrollment and student need.
But a new formula alone is not sufficient to rectify Pennslyvania’s irrational system of distributing state aid to public schools. CF has written and testified about the state’s “hold harmless” provision, which guarantees each school district the same level of state funding it received the previous year. While the policy ostensibly exists to prevent school districts from being harmed by reduced funding, it has, in fact, brought harm and inequity to hundreds of growing districts across the commonwealth.
In order to ensure the year-long funding commission’s work produces meaningful policy reform, a sensible transition away from hold harmless is essential. If, for example, the new formula is only applied to new spending—and some $5 billion in education funding remains attached to hold harmless—the broken funding method will remain unscathed.
In its report, the funding commission offered only broad suggestions regarding hold harmless. During a press conference last Thursday, Sen. Pat Browne explained phasing out hold harmless is a “budget decision” that must be tackled by the entire General Assembly.
This morning, the Senate Education Committee advanced SB 910, legislation that will implement the new formula. Unfortunately, SB 910 retains hold harmless for Basic Education spending during the “base year” (which will mean either 2014-15 or 2015-16) and applies the new formula only to future spending.
This is a moderate improvement over the status quo, as explained by Kara Newhouse in Lancaster Online:
In the past, districts were guaranteed at least as much money as they got the year before, and then some. Then the next year, the district would be guaranteed that new amount. And so on.
Doing that every year allowed inequities to snowball.
The commission instead wants to freeze the amount that districts get (either this year or next year) as the guaranteed base.
In other words, SB 910 would put an end to the “snowball effect” of annually resetting hold harmless levels, but it falls considerably short of an ideal outcome. The commission’s formula is rational, equitable, and transparent, which is why applying the formula to the entire Basic Education line item is preferable.
If lawmakers are hesitant to make substantial reforms in a single budget year, they could distribute a portion of the Basic Education appropriation under the proposed formula over a set time period. The funding commission, in its report, suggested 10 percent over 10 years, but this could be adjusted as lawmakers see fit. The key is to begin phasing in the new formula to as much of the line item as possible, while giving school districts reasonable time to prepare for new funding levels.
The sooner we distribute the bulk of education funding by a student-based formula, the better for Pennsylvania’s public school children.