Bipartisan state commission to look at education funding

Posted: August 22, 2014

HARRISBURG - When it comes to sticky policy issues, none quite matches the perennial debate over school funding.

Few, if any, school districts think state funding is adequate, and many poorer school districts - including Philadelphia - believe their allocations fail to match their special needs, and thus cuts end up being even more harmful.

A new, 15-member commission is charged with finding a way to solve that vexing problem, despite limited revenue and the general aversion to statewide tax hikes.

The Basic Education Funding Commission, a bipartisan group of Senate and House lawmakers and Corbett administration officials, held its first hearing Wednesday.

The goal of the commission, created by legislation signed by Gov. Corbett in June, is to design a fair and predictable formula for distributing state funding to school districts.

Key to the shaping of the formula is consideration of the wide spectrum of demographic difference across the commonwealth's 500 school districts, including incomes, local taxes, costs, and enrollment, the commission said.

"In a single word, this commission is about fairness," said the commission chairman, Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery). "We recognize tax dollars are a limited resource, and our responsibility is to find the best way to use the dollars that are available."

The state's 2014 general fund budget set aside $5.5 billion for basic education - the highest state contribution ever to local districts - but it still left some districts, such as Philadelphia, scrambling for money to fill gaping holes, and threatening delayed openings and teacher layoffs.

"It's a very complex issue; school districts are affected differently," said former House member Kathy Manderino, who was recently tapped to lead a new 40-member coalition, including education, labor, churches and business groups, to push for fair school funding.

"It goes from urban districts' 'Can we open doors?' to suburban 'We can open doors, but at what cost to taxpayers?' to distressed districts that lost a big funding stream," she said. "Every piece of the system is feeling pain from not having had predictable and sustainable formula in a long time."

Philadelphia, with 140,000 students, has been the frequent target of rural lawmakers and conservative groups who believe it drains state coffers without measurable performance improvements.

Sen. Matt Smith (D., Allegheny) asked Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq, a member of the commission, whether additional funding correlated to better test results by students.

"Money matters when money is used appropriately," she said. "When it's focused on things that support student achievement, the two go hand in hand."

Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said while overall graduation rates are at a record high and statewide dropout rates are at an all-time low, the disparities between white students and black and Hispanic students has widened.

Pennsylvania is only one of three states without a permanent stable funding formula, said Burkheit, and the top thing that school boards say they want is predictability.

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