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School funding disparate in Western Pennsylvania

| Thursday, July 17, 2014, 11:18 p.m.

Pension funds and long-spent federal surplus dollars still weigh heavily on the minds of state leaders debating whether a budgetary boost to state education funding really qualifies as an increase at all.

Western Pennsylvania school districts account for close to one-fourth of the state's new $92 million in education grants divvied up by Gov. Tom Corbett's 2014-15 budget, according to budget numbers that the state House Committee on Appropriations' minority staff released this week.

Increases ranged statewide, from $169 in Montgomery County's Bryn Athyn School District — so small it contracts educational services to other school districts — to $15.9 million in Philadelphia.

In the region, Pittsburgh Public Schools led the pack, receiving nearly $1.58 million, about a 1 percent increase from 2013-14. Midland in Beaver County was allotted just under $34,000. Other regional districts varied widely between the two.

Student enrollment and economic factors account for the range, state officials said.

Signed last week, Corbett's $29.1 billion budget funds basic-education subsidies at the same level as last year, which opponents argue is responsible for district-level spending cuts and property tax increases. To combat that, the plan also has Ready to Learn Block Grants in place of Accountability Block Grants. Funded at $192 million, Ready to Learn grants will fund pre-kindergarten, full-day kindergarten and what the state Department of Education terms “other proven educational programs” with $8 million secured for charter schools.

The governor's January budget initially proposed $241 million, a 3.3 percent increase. He settled at 2.9 percent.

Policy analysts with the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives heralded the budget for setting a record for state contributions to public school funding. But House minority Democrats asserted that school coffers have been shorted more than $1 billion since Corbett took office.

Had the state funded education at the 2008-09 level — before federal stimulus money arrived the next year — districts would have received a cumulative $23 billion over Corbett's four years in office, said minority appropriations Chairman Rep. Joseph F. Markosek, D-Monroeville.

Markosek's calculations exclude rising pension needs, said John Bouder, spokesman for the Commonwealth Foundation.

“Some say that teachers' pension costs don't go directly to classroom activity, so they don't count as education spending,” he said. “But couldn't the same be said for teachers' salaries and health care costs, which are all part of teachers' compensation packages?”

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale called both arguments “a battle over sound bites, not students.”

“Claiming the 2014-15 budget spends more on schools than ever before is like saying a family is spending more on groceries than ever before,” he said. “It may be true because costs are going up, but it doesn't mean the family is eating more or better.”

Corbett signed legislation in June establishing a bipartisan commission to study and make recommendations for a new, more equitable formula for dispensing state funding to Pennsylvania public schools.

State contributions ranged from $478 to $12,000 per student in 2013-14, while districts spent an average of about $14,600 per child.

“No amount of money, no matter how much we throw at it, is going to fix our problems until we figure out what the actual cost per student should be,” DePasquale said. “We can't keep throwing out a lump-sum number and hoping it fits the bill. (The disparity between districts) is only going to get worse.”

Megan Harris is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media.

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