The interactive map above allows you to see how each of Pennsylvania's 500 school districts would be affected if lawmakers chose to implement the state's new funding formula more rapidly.

The new formula has been lauded for bringing a measure of rationality and fairness to the state's funding scheme.

For more than two decades, lawmakers divided up education dollars without a student-based method that took into account actual enrollment, poverty, and language fluency.

By now taking these and other factors into account, education advocates favor the new formula for systematically recognizing that districts face different burdens that require varying levels of financial support.

The formula was authored by a bipartisan commission in 2015, and formally adopted with large majorities in the legislature in May 2016.

But a school funding formula is only as good as the money that goes through it. Lawmakers have decided to use the new formula only to distribute the "new" money they allocate — sheltering the lion's share behind a firewall.

In this plan, 2013-14 is considered a "base year."

This means that, in perpetuity, $5.5 billion in statewide tax dollars will be distributed to school districts annually in a way that doesn't align to the state's own method for gauging the needs of students.

At this point — two budget cycles past the base year — less than 6 percent of the state's main pot of education cash is filtered through the formula.

The other $5.5 billion in question is distributed largely based on the "hold harmless" system that has dominated the state's funding logic since 1991.

Under that system, districts did not receive less state aid, even if they lost students over time. Conversely, districts that grew in population did not get increases in aid.

Over time, this dynamic has created a system in which the districts with the greatest needs do not receive the most state per-pupil funding.

In the map above, the slider allows you to see how the state's funding scheme changes at different levels of formula implementation, from the current 5.98 percent to 100 percent. 

Looking at the state as a whole, you can see how — with greater reliance on the new formula — the state's per-pupil priorities will transition from the rural, western parts of the state where enrollment has declined, and move to districts that face the greatest challenges.

District-level information is available by hovering the cursor over the map. The map reflects 2016-17 budget data as published by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

It's important to note that this map looks only at the basic education subsidy, which is the state's largest budget line for public schools. Districts also receive monies from other state budget lines as well as from local and federal sources.

In theory, the basic education subsidy is meant to help level the playing field between wealthy and poor districts, and so the logic behind how this money is divided is important.

Faster implementation?

If lawmakers choose to use the formula to distribute the entire basic education subsidy, the order would be vastly disrupted.

Let's look at the most recent state budget.

Fully implementing the formula would have caused a $1.23 billion redistribution of resources.

This would have meant that 160 districts serving the majority of the state's children would have seen gains, but 340 districts would have been forced to do with less than the prior year.

As a general rule, the neediest districts would get large influxes of support, and wealthier districts where enrollment has declined would be severely cut.

A fringe of onlookers has called for this sort of drastic shake-up.

But most mainstream advocates and lawmakers say full implementation is a short-sighted idea — pointing to the poor, rural districts that would face tightening budgets, sometimes severely so, without the crutch of "hold harmless."

The gradual "new money" phase-in plan preferred by many in the legislature, though, asks the districts historically shorted by the lack of a student-based formula to wait longer for equity.

This includes some of the poorest, most distressed districts in the state.

Philadelphia, Reading, York and Erie are notable examples. But so too are smaller districts like Sto-Rox, Greater Johnstown, Shenandoah Valley and Carbondale.

Without dramatically upping the amount of new state dollars, it will take more than 25 years before even half the basic education pot would be distributed fairly.

The tension between these two ends has caused a dilemma in the capitol that tangles rationality with politics, parochialism with the promise of a commonwealth.

At its core, it pits struggling and middle-of-the-road districts that are wrestling with sharply rising mandated expenses, such as pension costs, against districts experiencing the same fate while also serving the neediest children.

A middle path would be to ramp-up steadily the percentage of funding moving through the formula in a way that both speeds equity for the most distressed districts, and acknowledges that those on the losing end of the new formula's calculus require time to adjust.

The question is: how long should this transition be drawn out?


Map by Azavea