New school spending formula aims for budget summit

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(The Center Square) – A multi-billion school spending formula cleared its first legislative hurdle of Pennsylvania’s budget season on Monday, just under three weeks before the state’s latest spending plan comes due.

The proposal uses complex calculus to balance concepts of tax equity and academic adequacy, as a solution to a recent constitutional mandate to overhaul the way lawmakers divvy out money across 500 school districts.

After two hours of debate, it cleared the House 107-94, including all Democrats and four Republicans. It moves to the Senate for consideration, where its path to passage is far steeper.

At its core, a fiscal note for the formula concludes that the state must increase basic education spending by $864 million annually for the next seven years to prove effective. The bulk of the yearly appropriation, $728 million, will support the formula’s adequacy component, which is meant to close the gap between schools with fewer programs and student supports and those with many.

The remaining $136 million would satisfy “tax equity” so that districts facing deficits can avoid tax increases.

Advocates say the formula rectifies decades of discrimination and underfunding. Critics say it still picks “winners and losers.”

Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Allentown and chairman of the House Education Committee, highlighted the stark contrast between two districts he represents – East Penn and Allentown – separated by one street in the city.

Schweyer said students at East Penn School District take engineering and architecture classes and have access to an emotional support dog. Allentown School District, where his daughter attends, lacks guidance counselors and adequate bussing.

During the pandemic, Allentown teachers showed up to school to hand out free lunches and photocopies of outdated textbooks to keep more than 3,000 students without internet access on track.

“We have kids that will walk to school 5 miles to a high school,” Schweyer said. “That doesn’t exist in our neighboring districts.”

For Rep. Barb Gleim, R-Carlisle, the differences between the five school districts she represents is exactly why the formula falls short.

“Without changing the funding formula in a significant way, which this bill doesn’t do, there are too many significant outliers negatively impacted,” she said.

One of her districts needs more money to cover their growing enrollment, while another lacks the tax base necessary to fund expenses. A third is still covered by “hold harmless” – a provision that guarantees a certain funding level each year, no matter the number of students enrolled.

The formula helps a few and hurts others, Gleim said. Instead, she encouraged lawmakers to “go back to the drawing board.”

“We can do better,” she said.

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