At the same time, the number of children in families living in poverty stayed flat or rose slightly in several districts in nearby counties of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The federal government considers a two-parent family of four with an annual income of $22,261 or less to be living in poverty.
Experts said they could not fully explain the changes, although some suggested that the drop stemmed from welfare changes in the mid-1990s that spurred low-income families to move closer to jobs outside the cities.
Whatever the reason, the estimates dating from 1997 will form the basis for allocations by the U.S. Department of Education under the Title I program to help districts hire teachers and buy educational supplies, including computers.
About $8 billion in the program was divided nationally among all public school districts last year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Pennsylvania school districts got about $369 million through the program. Philadelphia schools received $86million. New Jersey school districts got about $183 million.
The distribution means states with a drop in poverty could get a smaller slice compared with those with an increase.
There are, however, exceptions. A school district with a general population of fewer than 20,000 can mix in other figures, such as estimates of school-lunch subsidies, to adjust the figures and potentially boost the funds.
In addition, Congress for the last three years has approved a rule prohibiting any decrease in Title I funding, whether or not the poverty rate dropped. A bill is pending that would extend the "hold-harmless" rule again next year.
Nonetheless, Pennsylvania officials are watching the trend in poverty rates closely.
"It could mean a decrease in federal funds," said Jim Sheffer, chief of federal programs at the Pennsylvania Department of Education. "It would also mean that money would be shifting to other states, like California, which have had immeasurable increases in child poverty."
In Philadelphia, officials said the downward trend in poverty rates has cost the city about $25 million through the 1990s. One official said Congress' rule prohibiting decreases could not be expected to protect the city indefinitely.
"We're very concerned," said William Kozlowski, director of the school district's Office of Grants Fiscal Services. "We've already been talking to people about expecting less money. We'll have less of the national population, and less of the poverty population. We knew all along this could be a problem."
For now, the hold-harmless rule is protecting Philadelphia, but it is also hurting districts that saw a measurable increase in poverty. Unless Congress increases the entire amount of aid, there may be nothing extra to shift between districts.
"With [the rule], there's no more money to give" to other districts, Sheffer said.
Among these districts is the Norristown Area School District, which the Census Bureau figured had about 9,400 school-age children. The number of children living in poverty increased from 926 to 1,026 between 1995 and 1997.
The poverty rate in the Chester Upland district in Delaware County, the second-poorest district in the state, stayed flat at about 37 percent.
Statewide, the poverty rate among children 5 to 17 years old fell from 15.7 percent to 14.7 percent in the same period.
On the other hand, New Jersey's statewide rate rose from 12.7 percent to 14.3 percent, meaning the state might be in store for a funding increase.
Camden's school district poverty rate rose from 55.5 percent to 57.3 percent, but the increase may be too small to affect funding, Census Bureau officials said. District officials disagreed with the Census Bureau, saying the current poverty rate, based on school-lunch subsidies, is about 85 percent, significantly higher than the 1997 figure released yesterday.
John Crosbie, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education, said state officials had not seen the Census Bureau's poverty estimates and could not comment.
Thomas Ginsberg's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
* Inquirer staff writers Melanie Burney and Susan Snyder contributed to this article.