It defies logic. Over a quarter century ago, lawmakers passed a funding policy known as “hold harmless” which mandates that school districts cannot receive less funding than they did the year prior.
Regardless of the number of students lost in the 313 shrinking districts across the state, a school district’s “base pay” from the state has inched up annually since 1992. And, to add more of an illogical twist, we are the only state in the country that pays districts more as student enrollment shrinks.
PCCY did the math – hold harmless is paying for 167,000 empty desks in shrinking districts at a cost to the taxpayers of $560 million a year. More than one-half a billion dollars every year is going to districts that are teaching fewer and fewer kids. Like we said, it defies logic.
Schools with growing enrollment are also getting their “base pay”’ with small annual increases, but after the hold harmless allocations, those increases are a pittance compared to what they need. Since 1992, growing districts have welcomed 204,000 students but haven’t received comparable funding. These are also the same districts responsible for teaching 80% of PA’s Black and Brown students.
Just in southeastern Pennsylvania alone, student enrollment has jumped by more than 85,000 students since the hold harmless policy was adopted. The impact of the state’s failure to fund our schools is obvious.
In our latest education report, Hold “Harmless”: A Quarter Century of Inequity at the Heart of Pennsylvania’s School System, we find that the “most impoverished of these growing districts are the hardest hit by Pennsylvania’s hold harmless policy.” As result, the poorest districts raise their property taxes to fill the gap. Basically the state’s school funding policy rests on hiking local taxes on the poor who living in growing schools districts while state funds are diverted to reward depopulation.
To be fair, the commonwealth did pass a new funding formula in 2016 that calculates state funding based on actual enrollment levels and other factors such as poverty. But this accounts for only 11% of all state education funding. Hold harmless is still the major driver of the more than $6 billion the state doles out to school districts.
Superintendent Amy Arcurio of Greater Johnstown School District, a district with significant declining enrollment that is aided by hold harmless, called for common-sense reform at a recent PCCY press conference. “We need the state to grow the pie. Quite simply, the pie isn’t big enough for all of us. It would be so much better if we would all have access to the resources that we need instead of pitting one district’s children against another district’s children.”
Now, that’s logical. If you want to know if your school district is being harmed by this illogical policy, check out our Key Data by School District chart.