Could PA’s poorer schools start seeing more money from the state? 

January 5 – Last year some of Pennsylvania’s poorest schools got together to bring a lawsuit against the state funding formula and the Commonwealth Court judge saw some issues. 

The decision made by the lawsuit was that the Pennsylvania basic school funding formula is not legal and needs to be reformed. 

The judge’s opinion found that 412 of PA’s 500 school districts are actually underfunded. 

No guidance was given on how to reform the system, however. 

The lower funded schools that were part of the lawsuit are now asking for a $2 billion down payment for the help they need from the state budget. They’re also asking for an additional $1 billion each year for the next four years – and they’re willing to go back to court to get it.

The initial lawsuit caught the attention of the Basic Educational Funding Commission, a group of PA legislators who would take a look at the problem. The group did a listening tour around the state. 

The report from that tour is due out next week. 

Attorney Clint Barkdoll said, “We’ll see how those demands line up with the commission’s report that comes out next week. Presumably the commission is going to make recommendations to the General Assembly and the governor on what needs to be done and here’s some dollars tied to that. So that’s a big story to keep an eye on over the next week.”

PA Representative Jesse Topper, who is a member of the commission, said, “The Basic Education Funding Commission is statutorily required to meet. At this point this is our once every fifth year to look at how the funds are distributed in Pennsylvania when it comes to public education. Not the amount but how they’re distributed. What’s the equitable formula? I’m on that commission as a Republican Chair of the House Education Committee, but this year, it’s different because we are working under the backdrop of the court case. So many of these advocates and many of my counterparts on the other side of the aisle believe that this Commission’s role is to say that it’s recommended to the General Assembly that we spend $10 billion over five years to try and bring the system into a point of equity and adequacy. But our side has been arguing that’s not the role of the commission. The role of the commission is to look at the formula. How the dollars are divided, and we all can agree that that certainly needs some work, but if they start putting these, I’ll call them lunatic type numbers to attach to this, it’s not going to go well. So hopefully, we’re going to be able to continue our work. Right now we’re in executive session to try and come up with a consensus report that we can deliver to the general assembly that is reasonable, that is doable, that respects the court decision and also respects the taxpayers and also acknowledges that many of the problems in our school district have zero to do with money. If we’re able to put together that kind of a consensus report, I’ll be very happy about that. If not, then the report’s not going to be worth the paper it’s written on. It’s due next Thursday, the 11th and hopefully by then you’ll see something that is a positive reflection of what we believe and if not, then, like I said, it’s going to be a split report and unfortunately not going to have much teeth to it.” 

Michele Jansen of NewsTalk 103.7FM added, “The advocacy group, PA School Works Coalition, they’ve come out this week, saying they want a $2 billion down payment and they want 1 billion more spent every year, I guess it’s 6.2 to $10 billion.”

Topper noted, “Keep in mind, that’s just the adequacy and equity number. That doesn’t count any other public education dollars. That doesn’t talk about the traditional increases to the basic education funding formula. It doesn’t talk about any money going to facilities. That is only a small piece of the puzzle and of the pie, if you will. So those kinds of numbers are simply unsustainable. The governor knows that and anybody who’s reasonable knows that.” 

Jansen said, “It’s a narrative and they’re giving the impression that that’s what the courts basically were telling you you had to do. It is absurd because we know you can spend way less on students and get a great education depending upon the way those dollars are spent. We know throwing more and more and more money is not the solution for poor students, because that’s not what guarantees them to get this better spent money in a better education. It’s sad that that narrative seems to work with so many people. I’m glad you mentioned about and I want to look into more of the better spending on mental health because I’m afraid we saddled the schools with so much in the mental health side of things that, I don’t care how much money you spend, they don’t have enough time to even educate these kids properly in a school day. There has to be more of a choice for parents, vouchers have to go beyond just the most destitute schools. If we don’t ever get competition or ways out of this mental health morose that we’re in, I don’t know how you fix it.” 

Topper said, “That was some confusion by several groups coming out of the school codes that were passed in December was that all this money is going to mental health. That money was already there. The mental health language that surrounded those dollars is already in the Department of Education. What the Senate Republicans did, and I thought it was a pretty smart move, was they moved all of that money and that language under the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency because that has legislative oversight. It really brought more accountability to those dollars. Those dollars were already out there. A lot of that’s COVID created. So those dollars are out there, the language is out there created by the department. I thought gaining more legislative oversight of those dollars is important because we need to hammer out some of these vendors, some of the people that are using AI and some of these programs and apps to say they’re promoting mental health, but really it’s not. It’s having the opposite effect on some of our kids. So we need more oversight in that area. Period. And I think we were able to do that this year.”