Matt Smith / Let’s reform education funding

The opportunity to come up with a fair formula for schools must be seized

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The back-to-school season is marked by sales of new backpacks and school supplies. As parents ensure that their kids are prepared to advance to the next grade and start the school year on the right foot, districts are also working to make sure they are prepared to meet the needs of students and help them excel.

That challenge has become increasingly difficult in recent years as schools grapple with less state funding for basic education, more uncertainty from the state and in many cases glaring student achievement gaps. These are issues the Basic Education Funding Commission will be working on in the months ahead.

Act 51 of 2014 established the 15-member commission to study basic education funding in Pennsylvania, make recommendations and develop a more equitable funding formula. I was recently appointed to the commission and attended our first meeting Aug. 20. We will continue to meet and adhere to an aggressive timeline until we issue our findings by next June.

Throughout my tenure in the state House of Representatives and Senate, I have advocated for thoughtful education investment and policies that best serve our students. Not only is a robust education system imperative to the overall health of Pennsylvania and our competitiveness relative to other states, it is also mandated by our state constitution (Article III, Section 14).

Unfortunately, not all of Pennsylvania’s students are receiving the same opportunity to succeed in school. To make matters worse, the mechanism by which money is allocated to Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts — the basic education funding distribution — is antiquated, opaque and inequitable. This doesn’t have to be the case.

I often hear from school districts frustrated with the subsidy decreases in state support, increases in requirements, unpredictable funding levels from year to year and a lack of funding transparency.

This is evidenced by data from the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools that details the change in state support for education over the last 40 years. In the mid-1970s, Pennsylvania contributed 55 percent of funding for public schools while local, federal and other sources contributed 45 percent. Now that figure is just over 32 percent from the state and over 67 percent from local and other sources. According to the most recent National Center for Education Statistics data from fiscal year 2011, only seven other states contribute less funding than Pennsylvania.

When the state walks away from students, school boards and administrators, hard-working families are forced to make up the funding difference. This has resulted in cuts to services, extracurricular programs, enrichments like music and art, and teacher layoffs.

In addition to forcing districts to contribute more in areas that the state once covered, the distribution of available funds is problematic. Without a funding formula in place to allocate resources in a fair and equitable manner, schools do not receive funding based on their current circumstances (i.e., high population growth vs. population loss), the achievement gap widens and our kids suffer.

There is now a broad bipartisan understanding that a fair, equitable and transparent formula is necessary to deliver quality education to every Pennsylvania child in the most cost-effective manner. 

A fair formula should take into account a variety of factors like district size, student poverty rates and the special needs student population, among others.

I am hopeful that a collaborative, deliberative process will yield a formula that best serves all students. I look forward to working with my legislative colleagues to study best practices and offer recommendations for an equitable basic education funding formula that ensures every Pennsylvania child has access to adequately funded schools and a quality education, regardless of where they live, so that we can close the achievement gap in Pennsylvania.

Although commission members hail from different parts of the state, represent vastly different socioeconomic and geographical areas and come from different political philosophies, we can work in a consensus-driven manner to be successful.

We have the opportunity to present a bipartisan plan to the General Assembly that provides practical recommendations and the foundation for an equitable, reliable and encompassing funding formula that serves all students. Our commonwealth’s future is too important to push the issue off for another day.

State Sen. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, is the ranking Democrat on the Senate State Government Committee. In addition to his appointment to the Basic Education Funding Commission, Sen. Smith is also a member of the Early Childhood Education Caucus. He represents the 37th Senatorial District.

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