School funding a complicated puzzle

While voters rank education as the top priority and candidates across the political spectrum agree on the need for a fair school funding formula, finding a way to do that is easier said than done.

“What you have from public schools is ‘We need more money; we need more money.’ We are at 40 percent of the state’s budget already [spent for education],” Gov. Tom Corbett said during a visit to the Mirror last month.

“Not to mention, 62 cents of every new dollar in revenue goes to [funding school and state employee] pensions,” he added.

Both the Public School Employees’ Retirement System and the State Employees’ Retirement System accounts are drastically underfunded and are projected to need much higher contribution rates in the coming decades.

The employer segment of PSERS pension costs are split between local school districts and the state, while the state is responsible for SERS.

Corbett blames previous legislatures for creating the pension funding problems.

Meanwhile, Democratic candidates who look forward to owning the title of governor in November vow to restore the $1 billion lost by traditional public school districts when Corbett took office in 2011.

Corbett said he didn’t cut funding. The temporary federal stimulus funding that schools used ran out.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf’s campaign said a costing-out study is needed to start to determine the true costs of a high-quality education and then develop a funding formula that includes a nationally competitive base rate.

Additional funding would be supplied based on specific factors, Democratic candidate Rob McCord said.

Funding to schools would take into account special education, a major cost driver at a district, and the level of poverty in a district. “There is a higher return per dollar invested when invested in poorer communities,” McCord said. Also key is the local tax effort; “senior citizens on fixed income are being asked to pay ever-higher costs, very different than schools in affluent communities,” McCord said.

In addition to shared goals for distributing funding, the Democratic candidates have similar goals for increasing and investing more funding in education. Allyson Schwartz and Wolf propose a 5 percent tax on natural gas production. “A moderate, 5 percent severance tax,” Schwartz stated in an email.

McCord is campaigning on a 10 percent severance tax on the state’s natural gas industry to generate $1.3 billion, in the first year of legislation being passed, to restore the cuts schools experienced in 2011.

Having suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia until moving as a child to Pennsylvania, he said special education is a personal mandate.

“I ultimately went to Harvard, because Pennsylvania public education saved me,” McCord said.

Democratic candidate Katie McGinty was unable to return a phone call to the Mirror on Friday.

McGinty’s campaign website calls for overhauling school funding and expanding access to pre-K and full-time kindergarten, reducing class sizes, supporting gifted students and providing teachers with additional training.

Corbett’s Republican primary opponent, Bob Guzzardi, said more education funding isn’t needed.

“Twenty five billion dollars is being spent in education in Pennsylvania [including federal and local taxation]. That is enough. I don’t plan on spending more. I don’t plan on spending more for government schools,” he said.

Guzzardi is more concerned with expanding charter and cyber charter schools. He thinks Corbett and the Republican party have soured on school choice.

“For the first time in modern history, education is the most important issue that voters believe legislators need to deal with,” pollster Terry Madonna said. He is director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.

A survey released by Madonna’s opinion research center states that Pennsylvanians believe education has a strong impact on the economy. It also showed that voters believe effective public education requires state funds to be distributed to schools fairly.

Currently, that’s not happening in Pennsylvania. And Corbett and all of his opponents, despite their differences, agree on that point.

One obstacle is the state’s hold-harmless clause in effect since 1991, which states that public school districts will not receive less funding than they received the previous year.

“Enrollment has declined, but because of a hold-harmless clause [in the state code], those schools do not get any less funding from the state. Meanwhile, schools in the Poconos are experiencing increased enrollment and are not getting increases,” Corbett said. “What’s fair?”

The state funds about 35 percent of school district budgets. The consensus among about 800 school administrators, surveyed by a joint group of state trade associations in education, is that the state should fund schools between 40 and 60 percent of districts’ total costs.

“How do you achieve that is the question,” Corbett said. “We have 500 school districts. Over $10 billion of the state’s $28 billion budget goes to K-12 education. Philadelphia gets $1.3 billion. What’s a fair ratio? Rural schools say it ought to be this, others say that. Should it be based on per capita numbers?”

Some legislators in the fastest-growing regions in the state pursued legal action to thwart the clause. But last year, to avoid spending tax dollars on a lawsuit, legislators including Mario Scavello, R-Stroudsburg, met with Corbett on solutions outside of the court system. Scavello’s staff had no updates as of Friday.

Rural districts benefit from the clause. Schools in the legislative district of Rep. Mike Fleck, R-Tyrone, are heavily agrarian with no business community to tax.

“The hold-harmless clause has been great for rural and small schools,” he said. “It does make it hard to know what is best [regarding an education funding formula],” he said.

Corbett said he supports a legislative committee to plan a fair education funding formula. Legislation to form the commission has passed the state House and is scheduled for a vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee this week.

A funding formula may be difficult to establish in a state as diverse as Pennsylvania, Fleck said.

“There’s poverty in rural areas and the inner-city. There are places strong tax bases and weak tax bases,” he said.

The hold-harmless clause is only one facet of the state’s contested funding methods.

“It [state education funding formula] is so screwed up right now. The commission is going to have to come up with a magic formula,” Fleck said.

Education experts have said a cost-of-living factor should also be included in a state funding formula for school subsidies. Corbett wants to take a step further and carve a role for the state in teacher union negotiations.

“What happens when other districts in an area see a good contract?,” Corbett said. “It [union contract costs across the state] ratchets itself up.”

The race to provide competitive benefits is apparent and has perhaps blurred what’s fair with in a region’s cost of living. The cost of living is similar in Blair and Cambria counties, but salary and benefits for teachers between the two counties is wide.

The average salary and benefits for teachers in Cambria County was between $69,253 and $78,181, while the range of Blair teachers’ salaries and benefits was between $60,143 and $69,315 in 2011-12, a state Department of Education database shows.

And some teachers unions have pointed to a statewide average teacher salary during negotiations to support evidence that their teachers were underpaid.

“People are upset with me. I understand that. But school districts control the costs, we don’t when it comes to costs of contracts,” Corbett said.

A majority of state funding for schools is delivered as basic education subsidies. Those funds have left schools wanting. Additional funds gained by some schools have generated controversy.

Last year, the Senate Appropriations Committee included $30 million in supplemental funds that went to 21 school districts while comparable districts were left out. Legislators have long supplied supplemental funds to schools in their legislative boundaries. However, Corbett’s critics say that practice appears to have been especially egregious in recent years because he abandoned a proposed school funding formula that coincided with the education cuts when he took office.

“What we have is an ad-hoc, year to year approach,” said David Broderick, Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman.

“The fact of the matter, is that all schools in the state need a formula for consistency,” he said.

In absence of a funding formula, legislators have annual control over qualifications schools must meet to receive funding supplements.

Leaders of associations for school board members, school business officials and administrators said the schools receiving these supplements “happen to be consistent with the leadership of legislature.”

Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials Executive Director Jay Himes said the formula abandoned in 2011 could be revisited.

“The numbers would have to be updated if legislature revisited it,” he said. “But the basic principles of that formula are still sound:You provide a basic level of funding to schools and supplement that to meet unique needs like the number of English language learners, and the regional cost differences in salaries. In some places costs are higher than others.”

Corbett said he supports the formation of a legislative commission to reevaluate the education funding formula. But a governor doesn’t have the power to make the change a reality, he said.

“We need a legislature that is going to act on it-Truly act on it,” he said. “Fairness is like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder. We need a fair formula, but there will be a fight.”