House OKs commission to examine school spending

| 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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