New Castle News

Closer Look

January 20, 2014

School money split under scrutiny

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania spreads $10 billion in education dollars using a ragged method that is prone to political influence, according to legislators and groups who are calling for reform.

“I think we can do better,” said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester. “It’s an arcane, convoluted process.”

The House voted 187-9 this week to create a commission to develop a new way to distribute public education dollars to the state’s 500 school districts. The commission will conduct hearings, invite expert testimony and examine formulas used in other states before making a recommendation to the General Assembly.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle concede the current approach is too secretive and prone to inequity.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny County, said many members feel now is the time “for a fresh look.”

Last year’s formula is a perfect example of what’s wrong, critics say.

The formula was tweaked in secret by lawmakers to include what are essentially 10 earmarks directing dollars to 21 districts, according to an analysis by the Education Law Center, based in Philadelphia.

For example, just one district qualifies for $500,000 from a small school supplement fund, meant to help some of the 155 districts with fewer than 1,600 students, according to the center’s analysis. The money winner is the Penns Valley School District — in the legislative district of Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre County, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Other districts are excluded from receiving that money because of other criteria baked into the funding plan.

Another supplement — for small, rural schools — aims to help districts with fewer than 200 students. Only two meet the criteria, but just one, Austin Area School District, gets the $250,000 supplement.

It’s in the district of Senate President Pro Tem Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson County.

“I don’t fault them for getting money for their districts, but the rest of us got left behind,” said Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer County.

Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for Turzai, said “supplements” have been added to each year’s formula “since the dawn of time.” The practice is exactly the kind of thing, Miskin said, that could be solved with scrutiny from the education funding commission.

Pileggi said the formula was developed under the typical legislative process, involving weeks and months of negotiations. Now Pileggi said he is more concerned about having a fair way to distribute all of the state’s $10 billion in public education spending.

The current formula “is not uniform, equitable or transparent,” said Brett Schaeffer, a spokesman for the Education Law Center, which identified about $30 million being funneled through earmarks.

Pileggi said he would support efforts to make the spending process more transparent. It’s too soon to tell if the plan that passed the House will succeed, the Senate majority leader said.

“I want to make sure (creating a funding commission) is a meaningful exercise.”

(Email: jfinnerty@cnhi.com)

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