After weeks of back and forth between the Wolf and Wagner campaigns, it’s still unclear exactly where the governor stands on legislation that potentially could strip $1.2 billion dollars from rural school districts and redirect the funds, especially to Philadelphia schools.
The back and forth stems from a June 29 news conference that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf held in Philadelphia, where according to media reports the governor signaled that he supports the state moving to allocate all education funding through a formula introduced two years ago that thus far has only been used for increases in state spending on schools.
The upshot of such a change is that it would likely require the abandonment of the “hold harmless” provisions currently used in school funding. In practice, "hold harmless" means that districts that are shrinking in student enrollment do not see a decrease in money coming from the state, though they likely wouldn’t see an increase, either. The rationale is that districts with decreasing student populations are probably undergoing some sort of economic distress, and cutting school funding would only exacerbate the issue, potentially sending a community spiraling into years or even decades of decline.
On the other hand, in parts of the state where student populations are rising, local leaders and legislators argue that more resources are needed to keep up with the growth, and that it’s only natural that the needed funds would be subtracted from areas that currently are shrinking.
While there are multiple bills filed in the Legislature that would accomplish the change that Wolf suggested, the one that has received the most attention is House Bill 2051 by Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia. The proposal has already picked up 26 cosponsors.
“Presently, due in large part to population and demographic shifts, school districts across the state are funded at levels that do not match their respective needs,” Rabb wrote in a memo to colleagues seeking cosponsors. “The vast majority of Pennsylvania’s poorest students are enrolled in school districts that are woefully underfunded. … Currently only about 7 percent of state funds are distributed to schools through the new fair funding method. This bill requires that 100 percent of state funds are distributed through this formula effective immediately.”
Republicans, led by gubernatorial nominee Scott Wagner, have seized upon the potential ramifications of the Rabb bill and Wolf’s apparent unwillingness to clearly distance himself from it.
“Governor Wolf believes it’s OK to take education dollars meant for three quarters of our school districts and use them to try reward the people who vote for him,” Wagner said at a news conference. “Rather than rolling up his sleeves and instituting the measures necessary to put more money into the classrooms in areas like Philadelphia, he wants to pass the burden of funding the city’s schools to families in other regions of the commonwealth. That’s wrong.”
To help Pennsylvania residents understand how the change to the funding formula could affect each county, the state Republican Party launched a website, www.tomwolfcutsschools.com, that features an interactive map showing visitors how each county and school district stands to gain or lose.
Some legislators whose local districts stand to lose most have understandably blasted the proposed change, predicting massive negative impacts for schools and students. State Rep. Tina Pickett, R-Towanda, represents an area in the north central part of the state, one of the least-populated areas. Pickett pointed out that six of her school districts would lose more than half of their state funding, two of them more than 60 percent.
“To implement this funding formula using 100 percent of state aid would literally bankrupt most of our rural schools,” Pickett wrote in an update on her website. “That money – which makes up a large chunk of school districts’ budgets – would either have to be made up through local property taxes or schools would have to go without. Neither is a viable option.”
Pickett insisted that to turn entirely to the “Fair Funding Formula” would have devastating effects on the local economy.
“When the Fair Funding Formula was adopted, those of us in rural areas stressed the fact that many of our districts are declining in population and that we have higher than average rates of poverty,” she said. “We successfully made our point. To push more of the burden on local property taxpayers would cripple our communities, drive more people from our communities and result in subpar education quality. We can’t afford that.”
Rep. Cris Dush, R-Brookville, also represents a rural district. In his calculation, all the school districts in his area would see cuts of 49 to 63 percent.
“Our communities simply 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,” Dush said. “Clearly, the governor is seeking to rob as much as possible from Western Pennsylvania school districts to pay off his top electoral base with nearly $350 million in increased funding earmarked for schools located in greater Philadelphia."
Wolf, for his part, has insisted that he hasn’t proposed to cut school funding, which, while true on a statewide basis, doesn't address the fact that HB2051 would massively boost or cut the funds for various districts. In a posting on Wolf’s campaign website to address the topic, the campaign points to various positive educational developments in the state in recent years, including the recently passed state budget that increases education funding by $314 million.
“These are facts, which makes Scott Wagner’s recent lies claiming that Governor Wolf wants to cut education funding particularly alarming,” the posting states. “Scott Wagner is falsely accusing the governor of supporting the anti-education policies that Wagner himself has championed. Scott Wagner’s hypocrisy once again highlights that he is ultimate Harrisburg insider.”