LEWISTOWN - For the first time in modern history, education now ranks as the single most important priority among Pennsylvania voters, said Dr. G. Terry Madonna, president of Terry Madonna Opinion Research.
Madonna has been conducting statewide surveys semiannually for more than 10 years to gauge voter opinion. He, along with other education professionals across the state, presented the findings of the Spring 2014 Omnibus Survey, conducted by Madonna's agency, during a conference call with media agencies held Tuesday morning.
Madonna said 800 Pennsylvania voters were surveyed by telephone in mid-February about their views regarding the relationship between education, economic development and need for change in state support for public schools. The survey reflects the opinions of Democrats and Republicans, parents and residents living in every region of the state.
According to results, 84 percent of Pennsylvanians said they believe public schools have an effect on economic development. Additionally, 71 percent of those surveyed said they believe the state investment in public schools needs to be larger, and 67 percent said schools with a greater number of students in poverty should receive more state funding.
Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said the findings of the study reinforce that equitable and adequate funding for educational institutions matter greatly to Pennsylvanians. A state funding formula could provide more fair, predictable distribution of funds, he said.
Currently, Pennsylvania is one of only three states without a basic formula to determine the amount of funding school districts receive annually, he said, but it has not always been that way. Jay Himes, executive director of Pennsylvania School Business Officials, said the state last used a funding formula for education in 2010.
A funding formula, he said, is set based on a number of researched and modeled factors, including poverty, English language learners, school district size and location. According to Madonna's survey, 72 percent of participants agreed that utilizing a formula would better ensure fair distribution of money in Pennsylvania.
Buckheit emphasized that the results of the survey reflect a majority of voters in both the Republican and Democrat parties a rare consensus in a highly-polarized political environment.
"This is not just something that the voters of the state care about, but they care about very deeply," he said.
According to a press release about the survey's results, changes are underway for education throughout the state, and a predictable process for distributing state funding is necessary to adequately meet the needs of all schools.
The release states school officials also are holding off on construction projects during the state's moratorium on reimbursements for renovations and new building projects, compounding operational budget challenges. Without changes, the existing process threatens to increase local property taxes, force school boards to cut more from educational programs and hamper economic growth, the release states.
Himes said the moratorium has taken money out of school districts' budgets. When districts don't receive money for which they have budgeted, districts have to cut more deeply into operating costs or raise local taxes to cover the deficit.
Dr. J. Hugh Dwyer, chair of the Cental Pennsylvania Education Coalition, used the analogy of a family trying to exist from paycheck to paycheck on an unpredictable income. He said many small and rural school districts face the same struggle.
"Most of the districts I know feel they have trimmed (budgets) to the bare bones," he said.
Much of the discussion, he explained, is about what districts are going to cut next. Yet, their goals are to continue to improve learning and teaching in the districts.
School leaders on the call said a funding formula would encourage a more predictable, equitable distribution of state funds.
Also on the call were Nathan Mains, executive director of Pennsylvania School Boards, and Joe Bard, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools.