Report of inequitable CARES distribution highlights bigger school finance problems, advocates say

Originally published Dec. 8, 2020 for The PLS Reporter.

On the heels of a PA Schools Work report last week that concluded that Pennsylvania has failed to keep up with the rising costs of special education, comes a new report which found that poor school districts received less emergency CARES money compared to their wealthy counterparts.

The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a progressive policy group, released a new paper this month that looks at the way federal CARES Act money was distributed to the state’s 500 school districts. What they found is that the poorest quartile of students — districts with the largest share of Black students and districts with the largest share of Hispanic students — received less CARES Act funding than they should have if that money had been distributed according to the state’s Basic Education Funding formula.

With a potential second round of stimulus coming at the federal level, Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters of PA, doesn’t want to see the same mistakes made.

“We’re gonna see school districts struggle all over the state with their budgets this year — state funding has been inadequate, tuition payments to cyber charter schools have spiked, local revenues have cratered, and there have been new expenses created by COVID-19 that have blown holes in school district budgets, so I would say most school districts are going to have a rough go of it,” Spicka said. “However, the inadequate public education funding has been a long standing and devastating problem in Pennsylvania, particularly in communities of color and in areas of concentrated poverty. This isn’t new. But the pandemic stripped away any pretense that school districts in Pennsylvania are operating on a level playing field.”

This new report is one of many that have been published in recent months which point to the same conclusion: Pennsylvania is not giving schools enough money.

Funding Pennsylvania’s schools

Pennsylvania’s schools are funded by a combination of contributions from the state and localities. Over time, the state’s contributions have shrunk, and the report says they now account for 39 percent of the funding that schools receive, compared to the national average of 47 percent state contributions. In 2015, the state introduced the Basic Education Funding (BEF) formula, which added weights to funding for any additional money that schools are allocated on top of the base funding that districts received in 2014. In 2019-20, only 9 percent of base school funding was distributed through the BEF formula.

That formula takes into account multiple weights, including the wealth, racial and ethnic composition, English language learners and enrollment numbers for the districts. By weighting district composition, the formula seeks to make up for systemic resource inequities that tend to hit racially isolated districts, impoverished districts and those with extra needs, like multilingual education options, harder than wealthy districts.

Through the budget cycle this year, the state did not make any cuts to the education budget which report authors say was laudable, even though they maintain the overall budget needs additional funds. The PBPC’s report also says that the first round of CARES Act funding for schools, about $400 million, was distributed based on the amount local education agencies receive through Title I, which takes into account the number of students in poverty in a district.

It was the second round of CARES funding, $174 million, that did not get distributed equitably, they say. Each school district received a base amount of $120,000 and then an additional $67 per student, without regards to variables like poverty, which takes additional funding to make up for.

“When I compare my school district and the students who I care deeply and passionately about, and I think about what happened in the spring, that’s a pretty obvious example,” Stephen Rodriguez, Pottstown School District superintendent, said. “Everyone else around me, who had better resources — and they’re great people, but they had much better resources — they were able to immediately move, or near immediately move into a virtual format. They had the curriculum, they had the setup, they had the technology, and even those who didn’t had families who were able to support in a better way than our families were.”

Had the BEF formula been used to allocate that $174 million, the report says that school districts with the highest density of poor students should have received $90 million dollars, rather than the $35 million they actually got. The figures are similar when the report looks at districts with high numbers of Black and Hispanic students — by and large, school districts with the highest density of weighted students received close 20 percent of the CARES money, when they should have seen nearly 50 percent.

Rodriguez’s district received $349,317 in CARES funding. Had it been distributed via BEF, Pottstown schools, in which 47 percent of households are impoverished, would have received $649,739.

“So while I can on one hand say I’m glad that $400 million was was spent equitably, I’m very disturbed about the fact that $174 million was spent in a way that I’m not sure why it was spent that way,” Rodriguez said. “And I think that citizens need to ask that question. Why was it spent that way?”

The role of the legislature

School funding is slowly working its way through the courts system. The Education Law Center is representing six school districts, seven parents and two organizations in a suit against the state, which aims to declare the current funding system unconstitutional and order the state legislature to create a funding system that does not discriminate against low-wealth school districts. Because the state does not adequately contribute to education funding and leaves the burden on local districts to raise the money, the lawsuit contends, low-wealth school districts are unable to provide for students to the extent that wealthy students can, creating deep inequity in the system. The suit is set to go to trial in 2021.

The outcome of that lawsuit may be what forces the General Assembly to meaningfully increase the state’s contribution to education funding, but in the meantime, some lawmakers have introduced and plan to reintroduce legislation aimed at dividing up the money that currently exists in a more fair way.

In 2018 and 2019, Rep. Chris Rabb (D-Philadelphia) introduced legislation that would require 100 percent of state education funding to be distributed according to the BEF formula. His bill received bipartisan cosponsorship, but was never heard in committee.

Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery) has an identical bill to Rabb’s, for which he filed a memo during the 2018 and filed legislation during 2019, and which he says he plans to introduce again in the coming session.

There are challenges to getting support on these bills. Because they address how the money is split and not the amount in general, some regions would see less funds flowing their way if the money is divided equitably. That can be a hard sell for lawmakers.

With that in mind, Sen. Lisa Boscola (D- Northampton) is planning to once again introduce legislation in the coming cycle that still gets to Rabb’s goal of 100 percent of funding coming through the student-weighted formula. Her proposal would roll out the formula over four years, with the first year requiring that 25 percent of funds be distributed through the student-weighted formula, increasing each year until by year four, all money goes through that formula. That bill also never made it past committee.

With the party divide of the legislature in the coming cycle, Democrats are not optimistic that the Republican majority will take up the education funding fight.

House Republican spokesperson Jason Gottesman said that, as evidenced by this year’s budget, Republican leadership is committed to funding schools.

“While we are currently developing our legislative agenda for the coming session, our commitment to funding education has not wavered, even given the challenging circumstances of a global pandemic that has drastically changed how and where education is delivered at all levels. In the five-month economy-stabilizing budget we passed in the Spring, we fully funded basic and higher education for the entire year as an actionable sign of our commitment to ensuring schools and teachers have the tools they need.”

Rabb said he does not think things will change this term, but sometimes the “awful” thing to accept is that major changes have to happen over years or generations. His aim, then, is to mobilize and organize around education issues, so that when legislative leadership is more prepared to take up the issue of funding, stakeholders understand what needs to be done to make changes.

“We first have to empower ourselves through understanding the lay of the land and if that’s all I do in a session where I do not foresee the Republican majority allowing any meaningful democratic legislation to be even considered, then it’s highly appropriate that, in talking about education, we educate ourselves and others about the process so that we will be ready to do what needs to be done when we have more public servants in the state legislature who are receptive and committed to legislating on this issue,” Rabb said.

Republican legislators who serve on the House and Senate Education committees could not be reached for comment.