by Pete Mazzaccaro

This week, I wrote a quick profile of new 4th District State Senator Art Haywood. The former Cheltenham commissioner has a full agenda, but his top priority is clearly public education.

Haywood said he would like to pursue a fair funding formula for schools in a state where the average state contribution is 35.2 percent, according to a recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Public education should definitely be high on everyone’s priority lists for things to fix, not only at the local and state level but nationally. A look at several studies reveals that the challenge ahead is not just funding but also fixing schools – a task that’s not getting any easier. In fact, it looks very much like it’s getting more difficult all the time.

Last week, a study by the Southern Education Foundation reported that, for the first time in 50 years, more than 50 percent of U.S. public school students qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch. In other words, more than half of U.S. public school families lived on less than 185 percent of the poverty line – which for a family of four is $44,122.50 a year. (The poverty line for a family of four is $23,850).

That number has gone up steadily. In 1989, fewer than 32 percent qualified as low income. In 2006, 42 percent did.

What makes the Southern Education Foundation’s study alarming is that, while state and local lawmakers seek to close achievement gaps in test scores and funding formulas, public schools continue to face growing challenges of teaching children with fewer and fewer resources.

The Pew study mentioned above was part of a larger analysis of Pennsylvania urban districts and how their funding sources compared with other major urban districts across the country. Philadelphia receives more than the 35.2 percent average in state funding that goes to other Pennsylvania municipalities. The city collects 44.8 percent of its funding from the state and relies on local taxes for 43.1 percent of its funds. The remaining 12.1 percent comes from federal sources.

On the extremes in the state are Lower Merion and Reading. Lower Merion receives only 11.2 percent of its annual education budget from the state. Reading relies on the state for 73.3 percent of its annual funding.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Because Lower Merion property values are so much higher – the source of its local taxes – the school collects $26,812 for each student enrolled in its schools. Philadelphia collects $14,683 per student in a school district where the needs of the average student are far greater than those students attending Lower Merion schools.

How to close that gap is one part of a larger issue. Even if the state could find a way to fund the gap on per-student spending between Lower Merion and Philadelphia, there’s no guarantee that those dollars will equate to better results in the schools. That’s a whole other discussion.

Still, it’s clear that the challenge of funding public schools is an issue that is not getting easier. It’s a challenge that will take not only a lot of courage from state lawmakers but also a lot of creativity.