Funding for PA schools is still being reviewed – could it be about more than just throwing money at the problem?

January 26 – The Pennsylvania state funding formula for schools has been questioned by a lawsuit last year. 

Some of the poorest schools in PA got together to say how the monies are distributed isn’t fair. 

A Commonwealth Court judge saw some merit to the case and decided the funding formula needs to be reformed. In fact, the court found that 412 of PA’s 500 school districts are actually underfunded. 

As a result, the Basic Educational Funding Commission, a group of PA legislators, went on a listening tour around the state to get some details on what’s really wrong and how it could be fixed. 

The BEFC is a 15-member group consisting of three members from each legislative caucus and three members of the administration.

The report came from the tour out a few weeks ago, with a goal to provide a roadmap for greater budget stability for school districts, ensure students will receive at the least the same amount as the current year’s historic budget allocations, and seek to put in place greater accountability measures for hard-earned tax dollars paying for public education.

There were two reports from the commission – one received 6 favorable votes, 6 negative votes, while 3 members of the commission abstained. The second report, which called for more than $7 billion in new education spending, received 8 favorable votes and 7 negative votes.

Michele Jansen of NewsTalk 103.7FM pointed out, “We have to open our eyes to the reality of what’s going on with public schools and this is not to condemn the public school teachers or even the administration. It’s just we have to be realistic. What are we seeing across the board? What are we seeing from these national tests and our rankings in the world? That we are not educating children here in the United States as well as we should be in our public schools or as well as we used to do in our public schools.”

PA Representative Jesse Topper, who is a member of the commission, said, “I have consistently said, our traditional public schools will still be the number one choice for many of our students. In areas like mine, there are not a lot of options. If you as a parent don’t have the ability to stay at home or have some kind of a cyber situation, we don’t have Catholic schools in Bedford or Fulton County. Some very, very small Christian schools that simply don’t have the capacity to support a lot, even brick and mortar charters don’t exist in Fulton County. My point is, what our mission is as public policymakers is to ensure that every child has access to a high quality education and in some of those cases, that means working to fix issues within our public school. I truly believe that we have to do that. But we have to also realize that while we’re working to try and improve our traditional public, there are kids that are falling through the cracks right now. We have to be able to address that as well because those kids just don’t have time to wait for a five to 10 year fix in public education. They deserve an education and opportunity right now as well. So you have to walk and chew gum at the same time. My philosophy with education has been a rising tide lifts all ships, when every segment of our education system improves and gets better, who does that hurt? No one, right? It lifts all of our students, all of our families. So we have to be able to do both. We have to be able to focus our attention on both.” 

Pat Ryan of NewsTalk 103.7FM pointed out, “You’ve got so much money, so many dollars and yet you continue to underperform. You’ve got all the dough, you’ve got all the levers of power. How about you take care of your own people in the worst performing schools, the poorest of people that need a fighting chance?”

Topper said, “At the end of the day, I’ve been there for 11 years, I’ve never seen public education receive less money than before. This is another philosophy of mine is that you’re pouring money into a structure that is failing. You have to fix the structure first. We’ve talked about this with higher education. One of the reasons why there have been significant appropriations to our state system, our PaSSHE system, is because the chancellor said, we’re going to fix the structure. We’re going to integrate schools, we’re going to combine services, we’re going to save money, we’re going to do things to actually show that we are willing to have transformative change in higher education. If public education can do that, those dollars will stretch further automatically. But you have to talk about policy as well as funding and that’s really the biggest difference between the two reports. One report wants to focus on numbers and funding. The other report wants to focus on the actual role of the Commission, which was to develop a structure that distributes funds equitably, which is what the role of the commission was designed to do, not address how much money was to drive through the formula. So that’s really what it comes down to. Are we funding a structure that is sound? Or are we funding a structure that has rot in its base? If you’re doing that, you know that the house is going to fall eventually anyway, so let’s fix the house.”

Jansen said, “When we talk about equitable funding, we have to be careful that we’re avoiding equity the ideology and what a lot of these representatives fail to realize or fail to understand is, the more they’ve tried to put that ideology into schools, the worst schools have done because they look at it at a surface level. We want equal outcomes, and we concentrate more on that than we do fixing what’s wrong at the beginning to give all kids the chance to actually learn and no, you cannot ask teachers to look at every individual student, assess their cultural background, assess their demographics, and then tailor a specific program to each and every student. That’s ridiculous. We are asking teachers to do impossible things right now. Those ridiculous competencies that were passed at the end of last year 2022, I believe, are the worst. If you look at those, that’s exactly what they’re asking teachers to do. Not to mention, be activists and try to root out systemic racism everywhere they see it in the schools, along with assessing and reflecting on themselves to see where their unconscious biases are. This nonsense is what has taken our teachers away from good teaching, teaching children how to think, teaching them the subject matters that used to be the core and the strength of American education.”

Topper said, “Academic institutions need to be about academic rigor. Yes, there are factors in play that affect that. There’s no doubt that if a kid’s coming to school hungry, they’re not going to be able to perform as well or if a kid is going through issues at home, we just had two days of mental health hearings in our education committee last week. The issue that I have is that if the government tries to mandate that the public schools fix all of those problems, you’ll never be able to do it. Our teachers, our guidance counselors, our administrators, they can act as potential triage units where they say alright, we need to make sure this student gets to this service, but they can’t be the service. There’s no amount of time, money or energy that we would be able to put into the public schools that would allow us to fix every problem within a building. All that does is that burns our teachers out to a point that they’re not going to do it anymore. It’s why educators leave within the first three to five years right now because they’re not actually educating. They’re doing all of this other stuff.”

Jansen added, “It scares me. We’re actually training parents to abdicate their responsibilities to quote unquote experts at the school. This is wrong. We need to encourage families more to be the ones who are making these decisions about their kids and learning more about what their children need, not going with quote unquote experts that may be ideologically minded at schools because unfortunately, there’s this disconnect.”

Ryan suggested, “That’s on the parents as well here.” 

Jansen said, “But we can’t train them to be that way. We’re training our whole population to think that the government experts (have the answers).” 

Topper said, “Pat makes a great point and I said that at the end of our hearing. I implored parents, you have to be the ones and parents, grandparents, caregivers, community organizations, religious institutions, we have to stop the idea that we’re going to put so much pressure on these kids and that we’re going to then say public school, go take care of it. Because you’re right, many parents have basically just said, you know what? This seems to work. No it doesn’t. It’s not working. So everyone has to step up and fix this problem. It can’t be left up to the schools.”

Ryan said, “If you’re just going to throw in the towel and you’re not going to get engaged, then there’s nothing more I can do.”