Student activist: Pa. education funding creates potential “great disparity that we’re not going to be able to fix”

Harrisburg

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — The problem is far from new — 29 years old, to be exactly — and it was supposed to be getting better.

Whether it is — or at least, whether it is improving quickly enough — depends on whom you ask.

Crystal Echeverria, a Harrisburg-area high school student, says what’s known as a “hold harmless” — a Pennsylvania legislative deal 29 years ago designed to protect then-shrinking school districts from losing funding — remains unfair.

“Students that live within a mile of each other can live drastically different lives and experience drastically different educational experiences,” Echeverria said, depending on how enrollment has changed since allocations were, to a degree, frozen when “hold harmless” went into effect.

And Echeverria said the impact isn’t spread evenly among different population groups. “Black and brown and Latino students are being shortchanged,” she said.

That was supposed to begin changing after a 2016 deal between legislators of both parties and Governor Tom Wolf. And in fact, it did begin changing — but slowly, by design, because the deal was that new funding would be subject to a new formula, which took into account population shifts. Funding that already existed then would be subject to the old formula.

State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York County), who called that deal one of the past decade’s best examples of legislative compromise, said quickly reallocating funding would have bankrupted some districts, regardless of how unfair “hold harmless” was — and, she noted, she had long argued it was unfair while she was on the board of directors for Dallastown schools, which — because the school district has grown in recent decades — was (on a funding-per-pupil basis) on the losing end of “hold harmless.”

Now, within her state senate district? “I have school districts that would win and school districts that would lose” if “hold harmless” were to quickly vanish, rather than being phased out. Phillips-Hill said about 11 percent of state funding — essentially, the new funding since 2016 — is subject to the new formula, and that percentage grows a bit each year.

“That’s the challenge of legislating, is finding that compromise,” she said. “We didn’t get there [to the pre-2016 inequities] overnight, and we’re not going to get out of it overnight.”

How unfair does the distribution remain, according to critics? Echeverria, the student activist, says York city schools are missing out on about $59 million this year, compared to what they would receive if all funds were allocated according to the new formula. Harrisburg city schools are missing out on about $31 million, based on the same calculation, and Lancaster city schools $17 million, she said.

“And if we keep overlooking this issue, we’re going to have a great disparity that we’re not going to be able to fix,” said Echeverria, who favors a far quicker four-year phase-out of “hold harmless” than the one agreed to in 2016, which doesn’t have a time limit — just the provision that new funding be reallocated.

Nathan Van Deusen, superintendent of South Eastern School District in York County — one of those in Phillips-Hill’s district that has benefited from “hold harmless” and that would thus lose out in a quick reallocation — said no question a quick switch “would definitely hurt us.” But he said all school districts, including those on the other side of the “hold harmless” coin, suffer more from issues about charter school and special education funding than they do from “hold harmless.”

Besides, he said, not all districts continue on steady trajectories of enrollment increases or decreases — he noted new homes under construction in his district, despite the decades-long enrollment decline there since “hold harmless” began.

“There’s going to be an ebb and flow probably every 10 to 20 years for districts where ‘hold harmless’ is hurting and ‘hold harmless’ is helping,” Van Deusen said.

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