You may be frustrated and concerned at the patent unfairness of Pennsylvania’s school funding. But that unfairness is especially painful to Courteney Parry, a junior at Pottstown High School.
On May 31st, the day of the deadline for school districts to submit their budgets, PCCY organized three simultaneous press conferences in Montgomery, Bucks, and Delaware counties to illustrate the growing problem of inadequate school funding that touches every district in the state. We invited Courteney to speak at the event her school hosted because she’s not just well-versed and well-spoken about the unfairness of underfunded schools—she’s living it.
Courteney used to attend Souderton High, in a high-wealth district, where they offered all the classes students needed. But a few years ago she moved to the neighboring district of Pottstown, where the school lawn is decidedly not greener.
Currently, Courteney is finishing up 4th level Spanish, but she’s doing it in a single classroom with students learning all levels. She thinks her teacher is great but knows her hands are tied; teaching kids in four levels in one class means no one gets the attention they need to learn a language. Courteney may be completing top level Spanish but she says she still can’t speak it.
Inadequate funding, she explains, means a lack of teachers and a dearth of essential classes students need for college.
Stephen Butz, Southeast Delco Superintendent, agrees. “The zip code that a person lives in should not determine if a school is adequately funded.”
It shouldn’t, but in this state, it absolutely does.
Pennsylvania pays for 37% of education costs, forcing the remainder to come from beleaguered school districts where local leaders are compelled to raise property taxes or slash vital student programs. The state share is so low that Pennsylvania ranks 46th in the nation for education funding. The proposed $100 million funding increase for public schools this year is $40 million short of the increase in pension costs.
That’s not even treading water.
The solution is in-hand in the form of the Basic Education Funding Formula, the sophisticated and well-earned bipartisan victory that celebrates its one year legislative anniversary today. Unfortunately, only 6% of funding flows through the formula, leaving 94% still unfair.
Instead of solving that problem, some legislators are too easily distracted by shiny objects, even those that are well-worn and debunked, like fund balances.
PA schools carried a fund balance of $4.4 billion last year, which is a large sum…until you look into the fiscal realities of running schools. Blatantly misrepresented as cash ‘hoarding’ by some, districts require a fund balance to cover emergency repairs or lower-than expected revenues, generate investment income that helps to keep tax rates lower, and continue operations if state funding were to dry up, which, sadly, isn’t beyond the realm of possibility in any given year.
Of 56 southeastern PA districts, 51 have reserves that would only allow them to operate for 20 days or less. Around 20% of districts would barely make it to 10 days.[NOTE: Data unavailable for 4 districts]
Fund balances are also key for districts’ credit ratings, without which the cost of borrowing soars. Indeed, when the Commonwealth drained its own fund balance, Moody’s downgraded its bond rating, costing taxpayers millions. While the Government Finance Officers Association recommends districts maintain fund balances up to 15%, the state caps them at 8%. Very few exceed the state cap and not by much.
Knee-jerk reactions to fiscal requirements like fund balances hit students like Courteney right in the gut and can impact their futures by occupying legislators with cheap distractions. Legislators who feign outrage would make better use of their time by considering how a fair and equitable distribution of education funding might have an impact on so-called surpluses. At the very least, it would finally bring efficiency and strength to our public system and better prepare our students for success in life in a more prosperous commonwealth.
Kids still need you and there’s just enough time! Sign up to join us at meetings with legislators in Harrisburg on June 5th. Help make our case for pre-k!
“I can’t figure out how or why the PA General Assembly could maintain and support the worst funding disparity from wealthy to poor districts in the entire country.” Rafi Cave, Vice President, William Penn School Board.