Pa. legislators must fix broken school funding system

Thanks to a seven-month budget stalemate, Pennsylvania state government begins 2016 without a full budget, leaving the short- and long-term needs of every school — and every student — unmet.

In the short term, the partial spending plan recently signed by Gov. Tom Wolf will provide desperately needed money for schools and human services, but only enough to stave off closures and further cuts for the next few months.

The extended budget deadlock forced scores of districts to borrow emergency funds just to keep their doors open. In addition, all Centre County districts were forced to make cuts when the education budget was slashed several years ago. Clinton and Mifflin counties and Williamsburg Area School District made shockingly deep cuts.

Equally upsetting, efforts to fix our broken public school funding system remain unresolved in the face of the deadlock. Pennsylvania’s system does not provide enough resources to educate every student to the necessary academic standards, nor does it distribute dollars according to a fair and valid formula. The result is that Pennsylvania has the widest funding gap between wealthy and poor school districts of any state in the country. The amount of money available to educate a child varies widely, all depending on where each child happens to live in the state. The lack of a formula also means that state funding is so unpredictable from year to year that school districts cannot effectively budget or plan.

The bipartisan Basic Education Funding Commission, authorized by the legislature and the governor, was convened a year and a half ago to examine school funding in Pennsylvania. Last June, the commission unanimously approved recommendations for an equitable new school funding formula to help Pennsylvania begin the transition to fair and predictable funding.

This formula removes politics from the equation, directing money to school districts based on factors such as student enrollment, the needs of the student population, and school district wealth and capacity to raise local revenues. This formula was widely praised by legislators, local school officials and other experts, and editorial boards across Pennsylvania.

Yet because lawmakers have not been able to reach agreement on broader budget issues, the formula remains only a recommendation.

As 2016 begins, lawmakers must tap into the same spirit of bipartisanship and compromise that guided the commission, and adopt its formula into law after serious discussion and, as usual, some changes. In addition, because schools have suffered from insufficient funding over the past several years, the final budget must include a significant infusion of new funds so public schools can begin to reverse layoffs and education program cuts. The governor and legislators should pass a budget that contains at least $350 million to help restore funding and begin implementing the fair funding formula.

There is no more pressing issue facing lawmakers than fixing Pennsylvania’s broken public school funding system. The American Association of University Women supports the commission’s report and recommendations. We urge you to review the report at basiceducationfunding commission.pasenategop. com.

Contact your local legislators and ask them to make Pennsylvania’s children their top priority in the final budget negotiations.

Mary M. Dupuis is education committee chairwoman of the State College Branch, American Association of University Women.