New Pennsylvania school funding formula wins panel's OK

A bipartisan panel of state lawmakers and advisers to Gov. Tom Wolf gave unanimous approval Thursday to a new formula to distribute aid to Pennsylvania's 500 public school districts, a model that would funnel more money to districts with rising enrollment and more students whose families are deeper in poverty.

The formula still does not have the agreement of the Legislature, and there are battles that remain to be fought over whether and when to start using the formula, and how much money to distribute through it.

For now, the formula endorsed by the Basic Education Funding Commission is being advanced as a way to get politics out of determining which school districts should get more aid in a state branded as harboring some of the nation's worst disparities between wealthy and poor school districts.

Still, some members of the commission cautioned that simply using the formula itself cannot wipe out disparities built into the system.

"Where we are today didn't happen overnight," said Rep. Michael Sturla, D-Lancaster. "We have the most desperate funding for education of any state in the nation right now and the fix won't happen overnight either."

Education and school groups, including the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, Education Voters Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, also quickly endorsed the product.

For the first time, the formula would recognize not just a district's number of low-income students, but the number of students living at the deepest level of poverty - below the federal poverty level - and the proportion of the district's enrollment they represent.

It also would consider a district's current enrollment, addressing complaints from growing school districts, and for the first time recognize a district's charter school costs, geographic size and financial wherewithal to fund schools with local taxes. Another element of the proposed formula - the number of English-language learners in a district - has only been intermittently recognized in the past.

The vote came a year after then-Gov. Tom Corbett signed a law creating the commission to fix what many called a broken formula.

Pennsylvania last had an entrenched and objective school funding formula around 1990. After that, the distribution of school dollars became a political exercise in which governors and top lawmakers often worked to bend the formulas to their will.

One feature of that is called "hold harmless." That has meant that every district - regardless of any change in wealth or enrollment - received more when the state increased the total amount of annual aid it distributed.
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