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Rendell proposes more school funds and a new formula

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Despite some concerns, activists who have long fought for an overhaul in how Pennsylvania funds its schools are applauding as a breakthrough Gov. Rendell’s proposed budget, which would increase state aid to education by $2.6 billion over the next six years and create a new formula for distributing the money.

“We really think it represents a monumental paradigm shift in how we fund public education,” said Janis Risch of Good Schools Pennsylvania. It marks a switch from an “erratic, political process” to one that “uses objective data to determine what are the real resources needed in each district,” she said.

While not requiring new taxes, Rendell’s budget seeks significant new basic education funds for 2008-09 – some $291 million, or a 5.9 percent increase – $86 million of which would come to Philadelphia. That infusion would be a huge boost to a district still wrestling with a deficit estimated at $26 million this fiscal year.

By targeting more funds toward districts with a low tax base and significant numbers of impoverished and high-needs students, the proposal seeks to take the first step toward closing a yawning equity and adequacy gap among districts that was starkly revealed in a legislative study last year.

The “costing-out” study ordered by the General Assembly found that Pennsylvania falls short by $4.6 billion a year of what is required to educate all its students to high standards. Conducted by an independent firm that has done many such reviews in other states, it detailed what each of the 501 districts would need, and found that all but 27 now spend below that amount.

In some districts, the study found, the gap between what is needed and what is spent is huge – in Philadelphia, which has a high proportion of the state’s impoverished students and English-language learners, it was pegged at $5,000 per student.

Using its findings, the governor’s budget sets an “adequacy target” for each district and inaugurates a new formula for distributing state education aid that pays more heed to poverty rates, students who don’t speak English, cost of living, and local taxing capacity. It would be the first time since 1991 that the state distributed funds using a needs-based formula.

Rendell’s budget falls short of the nearly $1 billion increase initially sought by many advocates. Over six years, it would raise the state share of total education costs from around 36 percent to 44 percent – not the 50 percent that some think it necessary to bring Pennsylvania up to the national average.

Still, given the political realities and the commitment to adequacy, “it’s a sensible compromise,” said Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.

The budget now goes to a legislature that almost always prefers to hold the line on additional spending and where some members have been talking about a tax cut. But at an appearance in Philadelphia in February, the governor said he thought it has a good chance of passage.

“There’s no tax increase, and this is their study,” he said, speaking of the General Assembly. “They will have a hard time turning their back on their own study.” Most of the money also comes with strings attached, requiring districts to direct it to areas such as reducing class size, lengthening the school day, and improving teacher training.

Donna Cooper, the governor’s chief policy adviser, told a group of activists in February that the first-year total requires no new taxes. What she considers most important to accomplish is “passing legislation with a six-year funding formula that brings all districts to adequacy. This is going to be really, really, really hard.”

Under the proposed formula, some of the neediest districts will get a windfall of state aid – Upper Darby’s total will go up by 21 percent – while other less needy districts will get smaller increases than they have been used to.

“The governor’s proposal represents a very important first step,” said Ron Cowell of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, who brought together a coalition of advocates and organizations into the Pennsylvania School Funding Campaign.

He added that some major concerns have emerged, especially around special education – it will get a 3 percent increase without any changes in how the money is distributed – and the decision to lower the minimum funding increase for a district from 2 percent to 1.5 percent. That is hurting some districts, he said.

Cooper said that the governor left special education funds – a $1 billion item – out of the formula because there has to be more discussion on how to reimburse districts so that they don’t have the incentive to either over-identify or under-identify students in need of the services.

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