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Rendell wants more school aid; fight expected

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

Bucking national trends, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell says he will continue the state’s effort to increase funding for school districts in the coming school year despite a weak economy and a ballooning state budget deficit.

The governor is seeking passage of a 2010-11 budget that includes a $355 million boost to its basic education subsidy to districts.

In his final year in office, Rendell proposes for the third straight year to distribute education dollars using the basic education formula adopted in 2008, funding districts based on characteristics including enrollment, poverty rates, tax effort, district size, and local cost of living.

Over the long term, the increases in education aid aim to attain a funding adequacy target for each district. Targets reflect a statewide analysis of the level of resources needed to ensure that each student reaches academic proficiency.

The state has been able to sustain its education funding increases by using $700 million in federal stimulus dollars available in 2009 and 2010. It will be hard-pressed to find a way to replace those funds for 2011-12.

With the additional state aid and direct economic stimulus dollars from the federal government, the School District was able to increase its current budget by an unprecedented $300 million, or nearly 12 percent, adding 1,100 positions, mostly teachers and counselors.

According to Chief Business Officer Michael Masch, the District will see less growth in 2010-11 – about $90 million in additional state subsidy via the Rendell budget proposal in what is now a $3.1 billion overall budget.

“The basic ed subsidy increase is the only meaningful increase we’re going to get for next year, so it’s not going to be a big expansion year,” Masch said.

The District’s per pupil allocations to schools generally remain the same or a little higher in new school budgets, he said.

What could change that is if the state or the District is successful in one or more of the Obama administration’s competitive grant programs, the largest of which is known as Race to the Top.

Not all line items in the Pennsylvania Department of Education budget fared well. Charter school reimbursements are frozen at this year’s level, while Head Start and the state’s tutoring program are among two dozen areas facing cuts.

Last year, partisan battles delayed adoption of a state budget more than three months beyond the June 30 deadline.

While nobody is predicting a repeat of that scenario, the governor’s chief policy advisor, Donna Cooper, told a group of advocates in February, “This is going to be a huge fight.”

But she said the governor remained committed to his six-year timetable for closing the adequacy gaps facing many of the state’s school districts. “More than half the districts in the state still have gaps of more than $2,000” per student, she said, meaning that they spend that much less than their adequacy target.

Cooper says Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that is persisting in its efforts to increase state education aid in the face of the national recession. And she said it has paid off with “seven straight years of academic improvement from 2002 to 2009.”

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