Inquirer Editorial: For schools, money matters

Posted: April 21, 2014

The drama created by the Philadelphia School District's attempt to force new work rules on the teachers' union doesn't mean the inequitable funding that hamstrings schools across Pennsylvania is any less of a problem.

In fact, there's a good case for making school funding the top issue in this year's governor's race. Voters should place the fiscal shape of local schools in context with Gov. Corbett's business tax breaks, which have yet to be matched by job creation.

For nearly two decades, there was little rhyme or reason in the way state education dollars were doled out. But in 2006, the General Assembly authorized a Costing-Out Study to determine how much each school district would need to meet uniform academic standards. That led to the passage of Act 61, which included a formula for adequately funding each district.

The recession came, but Gov. Ed Rendell used federal stimulus funds to increase overall education spending while cutting the state's share. That decision backfired after Gov. Corbett assumed office and did not replace the stimulus cash when it dried up. Corbett boasts that he budgeted more state money for schools than Rendell, but minus the federal money, schools received less.

In January, Corbett agreed that the state needs "a true, fair funding system of all the schools of Pennsylvania," but since then he has said little about that. An issue statement on his campaign website sums up his thoughts on education in 256 words. Months ago, a spokesman said Corbett supports a bill to establish a commission to study and recommend a new funding formula. But the state has been there and done that.

There's no need to start from scratch. Why not simply adjust Act 61 to reflect the current situation? Its formula allocated basic-education funds based on each district's enrollment, poverty level, number of students learning to speak English, local tax levy, and other criteria. Using such a formula to accurately assess and fund each district's needs should keep schools from having to beg for cash.

Of course, for that to happen, the formula must be properly funded. Pennsylvania's share of school funding has dipped from 50 percent in the 1990s to about 35 percent today, ranking it 47th in the nation. Poor districts with weak tax bases haven't been able to fill the gap. And some districts, including Philadelphia, must contend with huge debts that reduce per-pupil spending.

Work-rule changes for teachers and wiser spending by central offices can make a difference. But fewer tax breaks could provide the funding schools also need to improve classroom results.

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