Recently, Gov. Tom Wolf called for a major change in how public schools are funded in the Commonwealth — a change that would have a devastating impact on students in our local school districts and across rural Pennsylvania.
Under the governor’s plan, 100 percent of the state’s Basic Education Funding appropriation in the annual state budget would be distributed through a formula that sends more money to school districts with a growing student population and less money to districts with a shrinking student population. On its face, the formula seems to make sense. But let’s look at the numbers.
If the governor’s proposal was to be implemented today, 300 of the state’s 500 school districts would see cuts in state funding. And for each and every one of the 12 school districts that serve students in the 67th Legislative District, the cuts would be dramatic. On the low end, the Galeton Area School District in Potter County would lose 21 percent, or $454,556, of its state funding. On the high end, the Otto-Eldred School District in McKean County would lose 56 percent, or $3.17 million.
For districts like ours that mostly rely on state funding to cover 50 percent to 70 percent or more of their annual budgets, such a severe and abrupt drop in state funding would be financially devastating. Our communities do not have the local tax base necessary to make up for such a significant loss of funds, and our students would suffer as a result.
Sadly, this is another example of how the governor is out of touch with rural Pennsylvania.
Since I first came to the Legislature, I have been fighting what has often seemed an uphill battle to make sure rural schools receive the funding they need to educate our kids and prepare them for success in the future. Each year, I have voted to increase the investments in our schools, and this year, funding for preK-12 education reached a record level of $12.3 billion. That accounts for more than one-third of the total state budget and reflects how seriously lawmakers take our responsibility to ensure a quality education for our children.
In fact, the formula the governor would like to use is already in place, enacted in 2016 with bipartisan support in the legislature. It was developed by the bipartisan, bicameral Basic Education Funding Commission with the goal of better responding to the needs of fast-growing school districts. However, to its credit, the commission also recognized slow or no-growth school districts still needed adequate funding to serve their students and had a limited local tax base to make up for the loss in state funds.
So when the formula was developed, it included factors to address the needs of rural districts. And yet, when we plugged in the numbers, it was clear full implementation of the formula — which is what the governor is proposing — would mean financial ruin for many school districts.
Instead, we came together and reached a compromise: The new formula would be applied to education dollars beyond the level of funding provided to school districts in 2014. Basically, each school is guaranteed at least as much funding as they received in 2014 (sometimes referred to as “hold harmless”), plus whatever additional dollars come their way through the formula. What makes this approach effective is that it provides for a gradual transition to the new formula rather than an abrupt loss of substantial state funding that would make it very difficult for many of our schools to stay open and continue serving our students.
The governor should reconsider his position and recognize that the gradual transition approved by the legislature two years ago is in the best interest of our students and the Commonwealth. I remain committed to fighting for our rural schools.