Commission examines Pennsylvania school funding

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HARRISBURG — A state commission charged with recommending a school funding formula heard testimony Wednesday about the history and complexity of paying for public education in Pennsylvania.

The group of Corbett administration officials and legislators is required to report to the General Assembly by June 2015. There is interest in many corners in examining how Pennsylvania funds its public schools.

Earlier this week, a group whose members include teachers unions, business groups and religious associations announced it had enlisted former state House member Kathy Manderino, a Democrat who represented Philadelphia, to manage its campaign for a long-term funding formula.

At the hearing Wednesday, Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, recounted the different formulas — and, sometimes, lack of a formula — through which Pennsylvania has funded public schools.

“Now we’re back to sort of this year-to-year, based upon whatever factors may be relevant that year, or whatever administration’s priorities there may be and whatever the General Assembly wants to do,” he said.

The vast majority of Pennsylvania school business officials, board members and superintendents responding to a survey by state education associations said predictability is very important in a funding formula.

Speakers noted the difficulty of reaching a formula that could fairly distribute state money to the many types of schools in Pennsylvania. Such a formula would have to account for school districts ranging in land from 0.6 square miles (Jenkintown School District in Montgomery County) to 970.8 square miles (Keystone Central School District, which serves parts of Clinton, Centre and Potter counties), according to a presentation by Mr. Himes and Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. The formula would have to fairly provide for districts with enrollments from 137,674 (Philadelphia) to 214 (Austin Area School District in Potter County.)

One major point will be the practice of not reducing the amount individual districts receive year-to-year in the main K-12 funding line. Rep. Donna Oberlander, R-Clarion, said at the outset that she will vote against any formula that “hurts districts” who have relied upon the commitment against reducing funding.

“The basic cost of keeping the building open and keeping the lights on are fixed,” she said. “School districts depend on a stable level of funding to help pay these fixed costs, and in a rural school district with a limited tax base, state support is needed to help school districts help fulfill this vital function for their communities.”

Mr. Buckheit said the state should examine how funding practices in other states could be applied to Pennsylvania’s school districts.

Karen Langley: or 1-717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.

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