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House OKs commission to examine school spending

Trib Total Media has built a searchable statewide database and interactive map that enables taxpayers easily to compare salaries in schools throughout Pennsylvania. The database uses public personnel data from the state Department of Education to create the first user-friendly tool of its kind for finding and comparing pay for Pennsylvania teachers and administrators.

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At a glance

Lawmakers passed similar legislation with Act 3 last year that set up the Special Education Funding Formula Commission, which published its first report in December.

About one in seven public school students in the state uses special-education services, up almost 3 percent since the state capped funding at about $1 billion in 2008-09.

The 75-page report recommended distributing money on a three-tier system based on the severity of a student's needs. The formula reflects community differences, including market value, personal income, equalized millage rate and size. It includes all publicly funded charter schools.

The current formula assumes 16 percent of students in each of the state's 500 districts have at least one of a dozen designated disabilities and pays out accordingly.

funding formula

If legislation passes, the funding commission would recommend a specific funding formula. Most states recognize cost differences with a per-pupil base amount — absent factors for student and district differences — that the state believes is necessary for a student to meet academic standards. The base amount often is multiplied by varying amounts for students who are learning English; living in poverty or foster care; pregnant or parenting; are deemed neglected or delinquent,; attend small or rural schools; or have disabilities. Local retail sales, cost of living, district size and the ability to collect from a tax base may weigh in.

Forty-six states, including Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and West Virginia, use at least one funding multiplier.

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By Megan Harris
Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, 11:39 p.m.

A school funding bill passed the state House on Wednesday, despite ongoing partisan debate over whether a funding formula even exists.

Widely supported by school administrators, teachers unions and advocacy groups, House Bill 1738 would establish a commission to study and recommend a more equitable way to distribute state dollars to districts. The commission would be comprised of House and Senate majority and minority leaders; Department of Education representatives; and a gubernatorial appointee.

A 2013 Education Law Center report said that Pennsylvania, Delaware and North Carolina are the only states without education funding formulas.

“Saying we don't have a funding formula is a little too general,” House Republican spokesman Michael Stoll wrote in an email. “Critics would be more precise if they say they don't like the current funding formula.”

The state phased in “hold harmless” provisions when recession-era cuts largely nulled a formula passed in 2008. Provisions ensure that districts in flux can't lose funding by renewing the previous year's budget, but weren't designed for long-term use.

Pennsylvania's $5.5 billion education budget includes several funding supplements, which target districts on criteria ranging from innovative curricula to large populations of minority students.

Detractors argue that inconsistent cash supplements aren't equitable and are based on antiquated student data collected in a state-sponsored study from 2007. The Education Department's website refers at least once to the 2000 Census.

“If you really want to go back, we haven't had a fair funding formula since 1991,” said Jim Buckheit, executive director for the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

The state was on the right track with the 2007 study, Buckheit said, but a $1 billion cut in surplus funding in 2010 derailed that.

“Those cuts were made proportionally, so places like Mt. Lebanon that only get 10 to 12 percent of their funding from the state didn't lose as much. Duquesne School District probably received closer to 70 percent, so they lost a lot more.”

House Bill 1738 is a huge step forward, he said.

“As it is, districts have no idea what they're going to get from year to year,” said Hannah Barrick, director of advocacy for the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials. “The first school budgets are due before (Gov. Tom Corbett) even makes his budget address.”

Commission members will be tasked with developing a formula that takes into account each school district's market value; personal-income aid ratio; equalized millage rate; geographic price differences; enrollment levels; local support; and other factors.

Detailed recommendations are due within a year, following public hearings. Lawmakers then will decide whether to make them law.

Staff writer Brad Bumsted contributed to this report. Megan Harris is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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