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State commission on basic education funding begins its work

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

The state legislature’s Basic Education Funding Commission held its first meeting Thursday, with the goal of creating a school funding formula that one member said would be "focused on children and their best interests."

Pennsylvania is one of only a handful of states that do not have a predictable education funding formula based on student enrollment and characteristics.The distribution of more than $5.5 billion in state aid has some relationship to a district’s size and wealth, but does not account for enrollment fluctuations or what is needed to insure at least basic adequacy of services for all students.

Recent, modest increases in state aid have often been doled out based on politics — a situation that has left Philadelphia unable to provide students with basics like counselors and librarians in its schools.

As a result, the state’s 500 districts, including Philadelphia, have a hard time planning for the future without a solid handle on what revenue they can expect year to year. Wealthier districts get very little state aid, but poorer ones like Philadelphia depend on it.

Philadelphia, by far the state’s largest, is in a severe funding crisis resulting from a drop in funds coming from Harrisburg over the past three years. The drop was triggered by the end of federal stimulus dollars and Gov. Corbett’s decision to eliminate line items including charter reimbursement that benefited districts with a large charter presence.

All eyes here will be on the General Assembly, which is coming back on Aug. 4 to consider a bill that would authorize Philadelphia to impose a $2-a-pack cigarette tax. That measure would raise, this year, an estimated $43 million for schools and eventually about twice that annually, according to projections. Wednesday, a group of advocates met in Philadelphia to strategize over how to lobby for its passage and convince Harrisburg of the severity of the city’s plight.

District officials say that they need to find $81 milion just to maintain this year’s paltry service level and more than $400 million to start on Superintendent William Hite’s school improvement agenda. Strategies discussed included not opening schools without assurances that they will be safe.

In the 10-minute inaugural funding commission meeting Thursday, commission co-chair Sen. Pat Browne of Lehigh County said that the body would work to "insure fairness" and fulfill the state’s "constitutional obligation for a fair and adequate system of public education."

The 15-member commission is made up of 12 legislators, six from each party, and three state officials. There is only one representative from Philadelphia, Rep. James Roebuck of West Philadelphia.

State Budget Secretary Charles Zogby, one of three state officials on the commission, called the present funding system "broken."

"I’m not sure that kids’ interests are are at the center of this system," he said.

But he added that it will be a "difficult challenge" to get something that everyone can agree on and then "transfer from policy into law."

The commission was established as a result of legislation sponsored by Republican Rep. Bernie O’Neill of Bucks County, who was not appointed to the commission by legislative leaders. However, Rep. Paul Clymer, also of Bucks County, named O’Neill his designee.

O’Neill, who co-chaired a Special Education Funding Commission with Browne, attended the first meeting.

The Special Education Funding Commission suggested sweeping changes that were only partially adopted in this year’s budget. Districts have been funded for special education costs based on the assumption that 16 percent of its students fall into that category. A $20 million increase in state special education aid will be based on actual students and distributed according to a three-tiered system that takes into account the cost and severity of a student’s disability.

But a change that would have also distributed special education money to charter schools under that three-tiered system was derailed at the last minute after many charter proponents objected.

Currently, charters get one level of payment for all special education students that district budget officials have complained is wildly out of whack with the actual cost of educating them. Most charters enroll students with mild disabilities, but the per-student reimbursement is based on a district’s average cost for educating all students with special needs, including the most severely disabled.

It is unclear how this commission will incorporate the work of its special-ed counterpart. In opposing the proposed changes for special education, charter proponents argued that reforms should come as part of a comprehensive funding overhaul, and not stand on their own.

"I believe the special education commission’s product was very good," Zogby said in a later interview. "I would respect the work of the special education commission. … We’re not looking to reinvent the wheel."

Republican members of the commission from the Senate are Browne, the co-chair; Lloyd Smucker of Lancaster, and Mike Folmer, whose district covers parts of Dauphin, Lebanon and York counties. Democratic senators are Andrew Dinniman of Chester County, Matthew Smith of Allegheny County and Robert Teplitz, whose district covers parts of Dauphin and York counties including Harrisburg.

House members are Republicans Paul Clymer of Bucks County, who designated O’Neill as his representative; Donna Oberlander of Clarion County, and Mike Vereb, the co-chair, from Montgomery County. Democrats, besides Roebuck, are Mark Longietti of Mercer County and Mike Sturla of Lancaster.

In addition to Zogby, Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq and Deputy Education Secretary Nichole Duffy are also on the commission.

The commission’s next meeting is Aug. 20. By law, it will make its report by next June.

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