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Panel: Pa needs to overhaul school funding

The formula recommended by the Basic Education Funding Commission, a bipartisan task force of lawmakers and key administration officials, would be a boon to cash-poor, poverty-stricken districts across the state but especially Philadelphia’s, which is pressing Harrisburg for an additional $200 million in aid.

The panel also proposed factoring payments to charter schools — which district officials contend are draining their budgets — into the formula.

City school officials called the panel’s recommendations, which will require full approval from the legislature, a first step toward fairer funding.

“We have a long road ahead of us,” said Randy Albright, Gov. Wolf’s budget secretary, who noted that the overall amount of money that Harrisburg choses to spend on education aid in the looming state budget will be just as important as implementing the formula, if not more so. “Today we take an important first step.”

The work of the 15-member commission – which spanned two administrations starting with former GOP Gov. Tom Corbett, who created the panel last year – aimed at tackling disparities in how roughly $5.5 billion in state education aid is divvied up among its 501 districts, including cases where similar neighboring districts received starkly differing amounts per student.

Their efforts seemed to take on greater importance after the U.S. Department of Education flagged Pennsylvania for having greater gaps between its wealthy and lower-income districts than any other state, and as Philadelphia’s ongoing budget crisis took a turn for the worse. The plan would go into effect for the 2016-17 school year.

Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, echoed others when he said a new distribution formula only partially addresses the state’s education-aid problems without the other half, which is more money.

“The General Assembly must now step up to correct the other long-standing problem with Pennsylvania’s school finance system: it must correct the relatively low share of state funding provided to school districts,” Buckheit said in a statement.

Although the state’s existing, complex funding formula takes local income levels into account, the new proposal approved unanimously by the commission makes a greater effort to factor in a district’s concentration of poverty, which studies have shown greatly increase student needs.

“By giving additional weight to students living in poverty-especially to those living in concentrated poverty-the Commission has recognized the significant and unique challenges facing schools that serve our most vulnerable learners,” said Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive Director of the Education Law Center-PA. “Such districts are often hit with a double whammy: they must serve the most at-risk students while struggling to raise local revenue even as they tax at relatively high rates.”

The plan also would give weight to how many students that a district has attending charter schools, which superintendents and school board members have cited as a growing budget headache for traditional public schools. Again, officials said this change could have an outsized impact on Philadelphia, where roughly 60,000 kids attend charters and the district says it needs help with its so-called “stranded costs” such as maintenance of its now emptier classrooms.

Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. praised what he called a “good, thoughtful formula” and singled out the weights given depth and concentration of student poverty and expenses related to charter-school enrollment.

Hite, in a statement, said the formula’s consideration of local ability to fund education, and total local effort, not just property-tax rate, “will go a long way in the future towards providing equity across rural, suburban and large urban districts statewide.”

“We must do better for our students,” said Rep. Mark A. Longietti (D., Mercer), citing the disparities between rich and poor districts. Indeed, today’s one-hour meeting was punctuated with praise for the bipartisan nature of the work – even as lawmakers remain deeply divided about other issues related to state spending, including Wolf’s plan to increase school funding through a severance tax on natural gas drilling.

Some of aspects of the plan are likely to appeal to rural lawmakers, including a formula factor to benefit large, sparsely populated districts. Others are certain to be controversial in the Legislature’s deliberations – including the fate of the current “hold harmless” provision that prevents a district from losing aid from year to year.

The report released Thursday by the commission says that a majority of the state’s districts – some 320 in all – would lose $1 billion in funding over time if the “hold harmless” provision is eliminated.

But state Rep. James Roebuck (D., Philadelphia) called the plan “a win-win proposal – there should be something in it for everyone to like.” The city lawmaker said the blueprint is a step toward fulfilling a requirement in the state constitution for fair and equitable school funding.

“I haven’t had a chance to digest all of the report yet, but the concept that factors for funding are being considered in the formula such as; poverty concentration, the number of non-English speaking students, charter school enrollment and local tax effort, should serve as a good starting point for discussion about fair funding for schools in our state,” said Dr. James R. Scanlon, superintendent of the West Chester Area School District.

[email protected] 610-313-8232 @kathyboccella

Inquirer staff writer Angela Couloumbis contributed to this article.