To the Editor:
Your superb front-page report on declining urban school enrollments (“Dips in Enrollment Posing Challenges for Urban Districts,” March 2, 2005) calls out for a remedy: state legislative action to grandfather urban-school funding and hold urban districts harmless from state budget cuts.
There is nothing necessary or inevitable about keeping school funding on a per-student basis. In fact, Pennsylvania and other states routinely have provisions to hold certain districts harmless. Most of the affected districts are generally property-rich suburban districts whose state funding under school finance formulas would otherwise slip away toward nothing. Usually, such provisions involve some minimum factor in the basic state-subsidy computation, as well as a minimum rate of increase equal to that given needier districts.
Such a solution would not cost state budgets any additional new dollars (although it would obviate “savings”), and thus might be reasonably doable.
Certainly, the stakes are significant. The last time school populations shrank was when the children of last century’s smallest generation, just after the baby boom generation, were of school age. Many schools were closed, sold, and became apartment buildings or condominiums. Unions hesitated to seek smaller class sizes because two small classes were likely to be merged into one large class, resulting in one teacher’s firing. You can still see these shiny, refurbished schools, now various types of housing, from the interstate highways running through most cities. They stand as memorials to lost educational opportunities.
If an urban hold-harmless provision can be enacted, however, urban districts will have some goodly part of the resources necessary for class- and school-size reduction, and for retaining and retraining teachers to take advantage of such new opportunities. These are objectives still not accomplished, even by urban districts in states that have had school finance reform, let alone in states without school finance reform.
Short of the enactment of the federal legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa, which would provide adequate and equitable educational opportunities for students in underfunded urban and rural districts, no measure other than an urban hold-harmless bill has a good prospect of animating the kind of strong urban education we desperately need.
Thomas K. Gilhool