School Funding Formula Issues
I attended the presentation sponsored by my REALTOR(r) Association, 'Fighting for our Fair Share of School Funding', a discussion led by Ron Colwell, former member of the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives and education funding expert and lobbyist. The turnout was not that great considering how often we hear from people who are unhappy with their tax bills, but the presentation was very informative nonetheless. While it did not present any earth-shattering revelations, or provide any miraculous remedies, it did reinforce a lot of things I knew already and drove home the idea that the problem is huge and not going away anytime soon. Mr. Colwell, over an hour and a half, presented the following main points:
- Problem #1: Education is underfunded in Harrisburg, so, therefore, all the school districts in the State are competing for a too-small piece of the pie.
- Problem#2: The funding formula in PA is easy to explain because it doesn't exist...there is no real mystery in why there are inequities in the distribution of State dollars for schools because there are no guidelines or formulas. Changes in funding for different districts stopped in 1991, which is when the last hint of a formula was last seen. So, any changes in a district's number of students or relative wealth has meant nothing as far as funding is concerned.
- Problem #3: The result of #1 & 2 above equates to a $2.5-3B deficit in education funding...that's right, statewide we are BILLIONS of dollars short! These billions are made up by, you got it, our school taxes. Where the state, under normal circumstances, should be footing 50% of the bill for an 'average' district, our local districts are getting 23-25% from the state. So, basically, property owners are footing the bill for Harrisburg's neglect of our schools, first by not budgeting enough for them to begin with and, second by not equalizing the distribution through use of a proper formula.
There Are No Easy Answers
Granted, this is not really new information-we've known this for a while. What I learned from Mr. Colwell is something more fundamental and basic...something which we have not heard from our elected officials...which is the honest and brutal truth: this problem is not going to go away and is not going to be fixed by belt-tightening in Harrisburg, nor by gambling, lotteries, or other such 'gimmicks' (his word!). The projected revenue from slots will come no where near the $2.5 B that we need per year. The plain fact is that we here in our beautiful state will need to pay the bill, someway, somehow, and probably generating the needed revenue through some other kind of tax. No one seems to want to hear that or believe it, but I trust that this is the correct answer as unpleasant as that may be. Only until we find an equitable way to distribute the costs to all of our residents, will property owners see any relief.
A couple of warnings presented by Mr. Colwell: do not be fooled or lulled in to a sense well being on this issue by the receipt of a check from the state toward your tax bill, which some seniors might see this year...this 'tax relief' is a temporary fix, a band-aid. Do not be fooled into thinking your representatives have done their job in Harrisburg because they bring back a check for this project or a grant for that...these 'deals' being cut by our reps. are only a symptom of the bigger problems and should be seen as a distraction from the real issues. His advice, demand real changes and do not be swayed from the goal, which is true funding for our schools.
The Education Policy & Leadership Center
PA Dept. of Education