Reprinted from the Pennsylvania Legislative Service
Representatives from the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO), Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS), Pennsylvania School Board Association (PSBA), Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA), and Central Pennsylvania Education Coalition (CPEC) were joined by Terry Madonna Tuesday on a conference call to discuss recent polling data that indicates strong support for increased investment in basic education at the state’s public schools.
Jim Buckheit, Executive Director of PASA, said, “While our state’s year-over-year job growth sits among the weakest states and the state’s contribution to public education funding is below the national average, Pennsylvanians are making connections that state officials have so far missed.” He attributed the data to an acknowledgement of the importance of education, as well as growing public sentiment in support of greater investments in the state’s public schools.
The data was collected through Terry Madonna Opinion Research’s Spring 2014 Omnibus Survey, which included telephone interviews conducted by Survey Technology and Research with 800 registered voters across the state with a sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percent. The responses concerning education in the state included:
•84 percent of Pennsylvanians surveyed believe public schools have a “Very Strong” or
“Some” effect on economic development;
•71 percent of Pennsylvanians believe the state investment in public schools needs to
be “Much Larger” or “Somewhat Larger”;
•67 percent of Pennsylvanians said schools with greater numbers of students in poverty should “Definitely” or “Probably” receive more state funding;
•72 percent of Pennsylvanians said they “Strongly Favor” or “Somewhat Favor” using a school funding formula to ensure fair distribution of state funding.
Madonna suggested the results show that a majority of voters, regardless of demographics or party affiliation, care deeply about education in the commonwealth. “It’s rare that you find this kind of consensus in a highly-politicized political environment that we currently find ourselves in,” he asserted. “This emphasizes that education now probably ranks as the single most important issue that the voters of our state think that state officials should deal with.”
“Public education funding must be seen for what it is—an investment in Pennsylvania,” reiterated Nathan Mains, Executive Director of PSBA. “Without proper funding, it is becoming increasingly challenging for school directors to balance budgets while maintaining the integrity of educational offerings.” He noted that basic education funding in Pennsylvania is not only insufficient to meet the growing curriculum requirements, but also the inconsistencies and uncertainties with funding on a yearly basis preclude any meaningful future planning. “This distribution only exacerbates the challenges of budget planning from year to year,” stated Jay Himes, Executive Director of PASBO. “We need a funding system that is built on reliable, known and verifiable data that supports long term and consistent budgeting.”
Joe Bard, Executive Director of PARSS, discussed the detrimental effects that the state’s
moratorium on reimbursements for renovations and new building projects are having on school districts. Particularly with Gov. Corbett’s proposed extension of the moratorium through June 30th, 2015, he said that local communities are forced to make difficult decisions regarding increasing local property taxes or cutting programs in order to make necessary infrastructure repairs and upgrades. “Schools in every community deserve adequate support for a great education that allows students to stay and rebuild or reinvent their local economies,” Bard stated.
Hugh Dwyer, Chair of CPEC, emphasized that the lack of a valid education funding model is especially detrimental to schools in rural and underserved areas. He said, “School leaders and parents see the inequities in state support for education and are expressing their beliefs that changes are needed to ensure a better future for their children and communities.”
Could you detail the state’s current education funding formula?
Himes stated that there hasn’t been a complete funding formula in place since 2010. “We’ve had these long periods where annual appropriations are determined by the General Assembly with changing factors, different weights, and different targets,” he explained. “There is no predictability on what the focus or emphasis will be annually.” Himes added the Pennsylvania is one of only three states that does not have a funding formula based upon the number of students and specific conditions at individual school districts.
How does a funding formula guarantee equity across different school districts?
Bard clarified that the goal is to not only have an adequate base funding level for schools, but also have resources allocated that adequately provide support for required policy initiatives. Buckheit added that the current block grant structure negates a great deal of funding discretion for school districts.
Are there any concerns that the polling data in support of education does not address the current fiscal realities?
Buckheit responded, “I think if you look at the poll as a whole you see that people want education funding to be complete.” Madonna clarified that the actual questions address some of the mechanisms necessary to implementing changes, such as creation of a school funding formula. Also, he pointed out, “The one thing that we can say for sure is that the voters of this state are deeply concerned about education and funding education changes.”
Does the funding formula that fell apart in 2010 still exist and remain a viable option?
Himes answered that the past funding formula is no longer viable, since it has been repealed from the school code over the years. The principles of the formula are still sound today, Buckheit explained, but the actual numbers and details would have to be updated in light of newly enacted policies.
Were any questions directed at whether individuals would be willing to pay for education improvements through increased taxes?
Buckheit said that no questions were directly asked, but it was implied that a boost in funding would necessitate an increase in state resources.
How do building construction and rehabilitation costs fit into basic education funding?
Himes pointed out that the moratorium on construction projects for school districts have saddled many districts with outstanding debt as they were already underway with planning, construction, and opening new facilities. “It just puts more pressure on local property taxes, and it takes away some predictability and certainties that if you start a construction project the state will fulfill its commitments,” he said. Bard remarked that school districts have little control over property tax increases, and these costs further complicate long term planning and management.
What is the administration’s position on drafting a school funding formula, and how would the recommended changes progress the situation?
Buckheit explained that the response from both the Corbett administration and General Assembly has been generally positive, but this has not yet been accompanied by any meaningful action. Himes said that there is a need to not only implement an adequate funding structure, but also make sure that is sustained to avoid the cyclical nature of current state education policies and funding. Bard observed that blame is often directed towards individual school districts, but their “hands are tied” due to the uncertainty of annual funding.
Were all parties satisfied with the past school funding formula?
Buckheit said that there was not universal support. At the same time, he pointed out that much of the discontent came from the fact that the plan was drafted in phases so those entities that would have benefited in the latter years of the six year plan were left with nothing. Buckheit asserted that it was complex, but there was general optimism that it could lead to adequate funding.
What is “adequate funding”?
Dwyer responded that there is an acute need for stability in both funding amounts and distribution structures to assist in long term planning at individual school districts. Bard defined adequate funding as the amount that enables a district to fulfill educational mandates imposed by the state, as well as ensuring a complete educational experience for students.
What particular policies are you supporting?
First and foremost, Buckheit stated, is the introduction of a basic education funding commission drafted in HB 1738. Himes said that they are optimistic that this has strong support in the General Assembly. Buckheit concluded, “We will continue to work with state policymakers to advance this issue.”