Pa. budget cuts hit poorer districts hardest, funding equity advocate says

Posted: July 11, 2011

Cuts in state aid to Pennsylvania public schools as a result of the budget passed late last month in Harrisburg hurt poorer districts much more than wealthier ones, says a longtime advocate for equity in funding.

Overall, the state sends more money to struggling districts than to prosperous ones, usually using spending formulas that give more to those with lower property values, higher poverty, and high taxes.

But Baruch Kintisch, a lawyer with the Education Law Center in Philadelphia and an expert on state spending patterns, said the Corbett administration and legislative leaders had largely abandoned those formulas in distributing this year's Basic Education funding, the largest state subsidy to school districts.

Basic Education funding for economically struggling Bristol Borough, for example, was cut $557 per pupil; Philadelphia's was cut $533. Of the 64 districts in the Philadelphia area, per-pupil Basic Education funding was reduced $200 or more for 11, almost all poor ones.

In 10 districts, including the wealthy Lower Merion and Upper Merion districts, Basic Education funding was cut by less than $20 per pupil.

"At every turn, the distribution penalized the poorest districts and benefited the wealthiest," Kintisch said.

Legislators and Corbett administration officials disagreed, contending that they did the best they could in a difficult budget year and that most of the $5.35 billion in Basic Education funding still went to the poorest districts.

Kintisch said Gov. Corbett had used 2010-11 Basic Education funding levels as his starting point for this year's allocations.

The problem, according to Kintisch, is that last school year, many poor districts had received more federal stimulus aid to bolster their Basic Education funding. With the elimination of federal help for next school year and the state cuts, those districts now have lost more money for Basic Education.

Also, in Corbett's distribution formula for adding $105 million to state Basic Education funding, the poor districts lost out compared with past years, Kintisch said. Whereas Basic Education funding was previously heavily weighted toward poorer districts, Corbett divvied up the funding based mainly on student population, Kintisch said.

In an interview last week, acting state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis said that "rather than examining how money was cut, it still remains a funding formula in which the money outflow is heavily weighted to poorer districts, as it should be."

He added: "When you are faced with a reduction in the amount of state dollars . . . it is going to have a more severe impact on districts that receive more money, rather than those districts where there is minimal funding."

The House added about $100 million to Corbett's Basic Education proposal by bringing all districts up to at least the 2008-09 funding level. The problem, according to Kintisch, is that method gave no additional funding to 148 districts, including 15 in the Philadelphia area, that already were being funded at the 2008-09 level. Many of those districts, including Philadelphia, Upper Darby, Norristown, and William Penn, are among the poorest.

Finally, the Senate added $29 million in Basic Education funding, using four complicated new one-time formulas designed to steer extra money toward 14 specific districts.

Chester Upland, which is nearing a meltdown because of state funding cuts, got $9.2 million more, for example. Coatesville got $1 million more and William Penn $217,000 more. But Philadelphia, Upper Darby, and Norristown, all also hard-hit by budget cuts, got no extra money.

Kintisch called the Senate funding "political budgeting" that left out "non-favored districts."

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), responded that "one of our chief objectives was to provide assistance to school districts which were disproportionately impacted by the governor's proposal, along with districts which have high ratios of English-language learners. We made significant positive steps in both areas. Working within the fiscal limitations within which the state budget was crafted, we believe the result represents a fair balance of competing priorities."

Kintisch said he didn't buy those arguments. "The job of the General Assembly is to fairly distribute funding," he said. "They failed in performing that job."


Contact staff writer Dan Hardy

at 215-854-2612 or dhardy@phillynews.com.

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