The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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February 17, 2013

Rural school ripoff?: State reps differ on fairness of funding formula

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget could be shortchanging many rural schools.

Corbett is calling for $90 million in additional basic education funding – a statewide increase of 1.65 percent. But only eight of 57 rural districts surveyed will receive as much or more as the statewide average.

Republican lawmakers said that examining the rate of increased funding only tells a part of the story because many rural and poor districts are already heavily subsidized.

Senate Democrat leaders last week noted that the funding formula creates definite winners, such as York Suburban, which would see its subsidy increase 5.68 percent; Wyomissing in Berks County, which would see its subsidy rise

5.96 percent; and the Derry School District in Dauphin County, which would see its subsidy increase 4.79 percent.

The Education Law Center, an advocacy group, described the governor’s budget as an example of “the rich get richer.”

But State Rep. Bradley Roae,

R-Crawford, noted that the schools in his district already receive a greater share of their income from the state.

“The average school district in Pennsylvania gets about

38 percent of its funding from the state,” Roae said.

Pointing to schools in his district, Roae said that in 2010-2011, the percentage of school funding that comes from the state to schools in his district was 45 percent at Crawford Central; 53 percent at Penncrest; and 58 percent at Titusville.

State Rep. Michele Brooks,

R-Crawford, said that if the subsidy per pupil cost is taken into account, rural schools compare favorably.

She compared the wealthy and growing Lower Merion School District in Montgomery County to the districts in Crawford County.

Lower Merion will receive an additional $100,000 in subsidy under Corbett’s plan, but with 7,000 students, that amounts to an extra $14 per student. The Greenville Area School District in Crawford County is also supposed to get another $100,000. But with just 1,600 students, the increased aid will amount to an extra $68 per student.

The distribution of the basic education funding looms large because school districts have gone two years without an increase in state funding and there is little consensus about the governor’s other main strategy for providing additional funding to public schools – liquor privatization. Those funds would be funneled through a grant program targeting science, technology, engineering and math programs; school safety; early childhood education; and individualized learning programs.

Corbett on Tuesday said that he hopes schools would use the money to try out new programs, then when the state funds are exhausted, local schools would be in a position to decide whether the programs are worth keeping.

Republican lawmakers expressed concern about designating “one-time” money for education.

Rep. Fred Keller, R-Snyder, said that if the governor and legislators believe those educational programs are worth spending money on, they ought to find a designated, permanent source of funding for them.

Roae compared the proposal to the handling of stimulus funding. After those dollars were exhausted, school districts complained that the state had slashed their funding.

“The proposed budget includes record spending of state money for education,” Roae said.  “If we give schools an additional $250 million a year for four years in a row from privatization money, five years from now they would probably say we cut $250 million when that temporary four year program ended.”

Roae added that he would rather see any revenue generated by privatizing the liquor system be spent fixing bridges.

Brooks shared Roae’s reservations about providing a temporary infusion of cash to schools.

She recalled having to face criticism in her district as constituents misinterpreted the end of stimulus funding.

In one district in particular, they were saying they had lost $650,000 in funding, but the state had only reduced their funding by $112,000,” Brooks said.

“I don’t want to diminish $112,000, but there is a big difference between $112,000 and $650,000.”

She added that districts had been warned by the state that Pennsylvania would not be able to replace the stimulus money when it was exhausted.

“We can’t print money,” she said.

“They can print money in Washington, but we can’t.”

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