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To translate the jargon, check out this glossary

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

Aid ratio

A measure of a school district’s wealth compared to a state average, and thus the district’s ability to support a school system. The formula includes both the personal income and property value a district has “behind” each student.

For example, in 2012-13, the Philadelphia School District had $97,959 in personal income and $183,266 in property value behind each student. Lower Merion, the wealthiest district in the area, had $823,967 in personal income and almost $1.4 million in property value for every student. Wealthier districts need less aid and have a lower aid ratio. Almost all districts around Philadelphia had lower ratios than the city.

The aid ratio is designed to assess how much to contribute to each district to make total spending more equitable. Today in Pennsylvania, however, it is factored into determining what the state will provide for transportation assistance and special education costs, but not for the biggest chunk of state aid, the basic education subsidy.

Basic education funding

The major category of state school funding, covering students in regular K-12 classrooms. At one time, Pennsylvania calculated it specifically for each district based on its actual enrollment, aid ratio, and local tax effort. But this is no longer the case. Instead, the total amount is determined each year by the General Assembly, based largely on what it got the year before.

Block grants

The state provides Ready to Learn Block Grants as supplemental funding for school districts based on population, poverty, and the percentage of English language learners. They offer some flexibility but must be targeted to certain educational initiatives such as preschool and full-day kindergarten, supplemental instruction for Keystone exams, or computer-based instruction. They replaced a similar Accountability Block Grant program. For about a decade, the state has preferred these targeted grants to increases in basic education funding, which is unrestricted.

Charter authorizer

A governmental agency with the power to approve the establishment of a charter school. In Pennsylvania, this is the local district, although other states have granted this authority to universities or other entities or established statewide authorizing boards. This has also been proposed for Pennsylvania, but never approved by the General Assembly.

Hold harmless

A provision added to Pennsylvania’s school code in 1991 requiring that no school district receive less state funding than the year before, even if it loses enrollment. The starting point is based on the 1990 census. This provision is frequently criticized by school districts in fast-growing areas, which feel shortchanged when shrinking districts still receive increases.

Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS)

Separate from the State Employees Retirement system and more than twice as large, with some 589,000 members statewide. But according to the 2012 Keystone Pension Report of the state Budget Office, both are underfunded by more than 30 percent, and Gov. Corbett has made reform of both pension systems to control the state’s contribution a key goal.

School code

The Public School Code of 1949. It is the basic framework for all state education legislation – in effect, the public school system’s constitution.

School income tax

A local tax levied in Philadelphia on unearned income, including dividends, interest, short-term capital gains, and rental income.

Special education funding

In addition to the basic education funding, Pennsylvania gives supplemental state funding for students in special education programs. Funding used to be based on total enrollment and more recently factored in the number of students in special education, but not their degree of disability. Unlike basic education funding, the aid ratio is considered.

Stranded costs

A key issue in the debate over funding charter schools. When a student transfers from the District to a charter school, the District does not save the full cost of his or her education. The District must still pay to maintain the building the student was in, for example, and for other expenses such as teacher salaries that are not immediately reduced. These are examples of “stranded costs.”

Transportation funding

The third-largest category of state funding to assist local school districts. The aid ratio is also considered here.

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