Our view: State funding formula needs to apply to all money

It matters because one way or another it affects your taxes, it affects our children, it affects our future.

Public school funding is typically either rage making (“my taxes are too high for what we’re getting!”) or eye-glazing (millage, assessed value, Basic Education Funding, Special Education Funding, Title I, Act I index, and on and on). But regardless of reaction, it is a topic one ignores at great risk.

On Friday, it took center stage with a new legal brief filed in a lawsuit contending the Pennsylvania General Assembly has been violating the state constitution by failing to provide enough money equitably to public schools. The details get dense, but one point stands out: This filing was a direct response to legal objections from two prominent Republican defendants, House Speaker Mike Turzai and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati

They argued the suit, filed in 2014, was legally made moot when the state adopted a new education funding formula in 2016.

The defendants haven’t filed their counter-briefs yet, and this is ultimately a matter for the courts to decide. But to be blunt, the Scarnati/Turzai claim is rubbish.

Forget any debate about how much money we do or should spend on public education, or where it should or shouldn’t come from, or where it should or shouldn’t go. As much as teacher bashing often becomes a go-to response from people angry about high property taxes, in this specific debate it’s irrelevant.

Even some of the legal arguments made against the “mootness” of the case by those who filed the brief — including Wilkes-Barre Area School District and area resident Tracey Hughes — are secondary.

There is a simple reason the new funding formula does not make the question of equitable state funding for schools moot: The formula is used to dole out only a tiny sliver — well below 2 percent — of the state education budget.

The brief filed Friday estimates about 20 percent the state education budget would be re-allocated among districts if the formula were used from top to bottom. That means a lot of needier districts would see a big infusion of state dollars, while a good number of wealthier districts would suddenly see their state share slashed.

Being averse to such tectonic changes, when the legislature enacted the new formula, it insisted each district get the same amount received the previous year. Only “new money” added to the education budget is funneled through the formula.

This is the definition of irony. The formula was designed to eliminate funding inequities among districts by funnelling state dollars to the neediest districts, as determined by enrollment, poverty levels, local tax base and other relevant data. Yet the legislature precluded actually doing that with nearly all the money involved.

Scarnati and Tarzai may ultimately make effective arguments that win this lawsuit. But if they want to insist the whole debate is moot thanks to the new funding formula, they need to apply the formula to all funding.