School fund­ing fight ex­its spot­light

Wolf fails to men­tion is­sue in bud­get speech

The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Marc Levy

HAR­RIS­BURG >> When Gov. Tom Wolf took of­fice, he told law­mak­ers that he had a plan to fix Penn­syl­va­nia’s sys­tem of school fund­ing.

Four years and a cou­ple of bud­get fights later, pub­lic school ad­vo­cates say huge gaps still per­sist be­tween poorer and wealth­ier dis­tricts, while the sub­ject didn’t rate a men­tion this past week in the Demo­crat’s first bud­get speech to the Leg­is­la­ture af­ter his re-elec­tion.

That prompted grum­bling among Demo­cratic law­mak­ers, although some in the school-fund­ing trenches say Wolf hasn’t nec­es­sar­ily given up. Rather, his si­lence re­flects the dif­fi­cult pol­i­tics in the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Leg­is­la­ture, they say.

“I think in this par­tic­u­lar bud­get, com­ing off of a new elec­tion with a Leg­is­la­ture that has been at least semi-pro­duc­tive in the last year or two, that the gover­nor said, ‘Look, I’m not go­ing to stick a fork in any­body’s eye to get started with,’” said Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lan­caster.

For his part, Wolf’s of­fice says

he re­mains open to a dis­cus­sion with the Leg­is­la­ture on mak­ing school fund­ing fairer. How­ever, some­one else may have to carry the torch.

For years, Penn­syl­va­nia’s school-fund­ing sys­tem has stuck out na­tion­ally, oc­ca­sion­ally flagged as one of the least eq­ui­table.

Dis­tricts in the top half of av­er­age house­hold in­come spent $673 more per stu­dent than dis­tricts in the bot­tom half, ac­cord­ing to an As­so­ci­ated Press anal­y­sis of 2016-17 state data on school dis­trict spend­ing, in­come and at­ten­dance, the lat­est avail­able.

The gap is wider on the far­ther ends of the in­come spec­trum: The wealth­i­est 10 dis­tricts spent an av­er­age of $4,300 more per stu­dent, or more than a quar­ter above what the poor­est 10 dis­tricts spent, ac­cord­ing to AP’s anal­y­sis.

In 2015, Wolf ad­vanced a cou­ple of strate­gies to tackle those in­equities.

He pro­posed a big in­crease, $400 mil­lion, in state aid for gen­eral pub­lic school in­struc­tion and op­er­a­tions, but it came pack­aged with a tax in­crease that didn’t fly with Repub­li­cans.

He floated a $3.2 bil­lion tax-shift­ing plan — cut­ting prop­erty taxes, pri­mar­ily in poorer dis­tricts, and re­plac­ing the money with state tax in­creases — in a bid to boost Penn­syl­va­nia’s state share of school fund­ing to 50 per­cent. It stalled amid a win­ners-ver­sus-losers de­bate and calls to com­pletely elim­i­nate school prop­erty taxes.

In his new bud­get plan, Wolf pro­posed a $200 mil­lion in­crease — the up­per limit of what law­mak­ers ap­proved in Wolf’s first term — and no tax-shift­ing plan.

Then there are ideas to fun­nel more of the $6 bil­lion-plus in gen­eral state aid through a four-year-old school fund­ing for­mula. Only a frac­tion of that aid cur­rently goes through the for­mula, de­signed to be fairer by re­flect­ing changes in school dis­trict at­ten­dance and wealth that bud­get mak­ers largely ig­nored for 25 years.

Now, 70 per­cent of the state’s 500 school dis­tricts re­ceive a big­ger share of state aid than they would un­der the up­dated for­mula.

But pro­pos­als to ex­pand the for­mula’s use have fallen flat — and be­came a lead­ing Repub­li­can line of at­tack against Wolf in last year’s cam­paign — be­cause they cre­ate more los­ing dis­tricts than win­ning dis­tricts.

“Cer­tainly you’re not go­ing to solve that prob­lem in a sin­gle stroke,” said Rep. James Roe­buck, of Philadel­phia, the House Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee’s rank­ing Demo­crat. “We have a bud­get that’s nar­rowly bal­anced be­tween con­flict­ing in­ter­ests, and I don’t see any way to quickly re­solve that is­sue.”

Inequalities in school fund­ing could be partly due to a quar­ter-cen­tury of herky-jerky for­mu­las.

Mean­while, the Penn­syl­va­nia state govern­ment sup­plies less than 38 per­cent of to­tal school rev­enue, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral data from 2016, mak­ing it 46 out of 50 states. States av­er­age 51 per­cent.

Penn­syl­va­nia’s rel­a­tive

“Cer­tainly you’re not go­ing to solve that prob­lem in a sin­gle stroke.” — Rep. James Roe­buck, of Philadel­phia, the House Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee’s rank­ing Demo­crat

im­bal­ance leaves poorer school dis­tricts overly re­liant on in­ad­e­quate lo­cal tax bases and drives in­equities be­tween dis­tricts, the sys­tem’s crit­ics say.

Dy­nam­ics like that are why the par­ents of six school chil­dren, six school dis­tricts, the NAACP and a ru­ral schools group are su­ing the state.

The four-year-old law­suit is sched­uled for trial next year, and has sowed con­cern among Repub­li­can law­mak­ers that the state Supreme Court could or­der a mas­sive new in­vest­ment in pub­lic schools.

In the mean­time, pub­lic school ad­vo­cates are try­ing to build sup­port for ideas to fun­nel a big­ger share of money to dis­tricts that are suf­fer­ing the most.

Sturla re­called speak­ing with Wolf days be­fore his bud­get speech to see if the gover­nor would pro­pose any­thing like that.

The an­swer was “no.” But, Wolf told him: “Ev­ery­thing is ne­go­tiable.”

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Penn­syl­va­nia Gov. Tom Wolf talks with Mis­eri­cor­dia Univer­sity stu­dent and mother Rochelle Jade Scott and her daugh­ter Sky as he vis­ited Mis­eri­cor­dia Univer­sity in Dal­las, Pa., Fri­day.

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