State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

In funding formula debate, a new voice: the governor's

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Jan 24, 2014 5:23 PM
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As the gubernatorial election heats up and education issues take center stage, a measure that would create a new schools funding formula is getting a boost from the governor.

At an unrelated press conference at the Capitol Wednesday, Corbett said the current way of divvying up state aid for public schools needs to change.

"Let's get a true, fair funding system for all the schools of Pennsylvania," Corbett said, "not for one school district or another, but for all the schools."

Schools funding is decided during spring-summer budget negotiations among state lawmakers. Education advocates have argued that, without a set formula, more money is funneled to schools that sit in districts with powerful legislators. Even lawmakers who would dispute that suggest the current method of doling out money results in disparities. The reasons are legion: some districts serve students with more needs; some receive relatively little local tax revenue because of low property values or a plethora of tax-exempt property; some have experienced population booms that haven't been matched with proportional increases in state aid.

"It's not fair right now, OK? So we need to address that," Corbett said.

A measure that could result in a new way of distributing money to school districts has passed the state House and is before the Senate.

The bill would create a commission to study how schools are funded now, and then make recommendations for improvement.

A formula created to minimize funding disparities among schools was used under former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell for three years. It was scrapped when Corbett took office. Education advocates have repeatedly criticized that move.

Democrats have added to the outcry for a funding formula recently as the gubernatorial election campaign ramps up. There are eight declared Democratic candidates, most of whom are also calling for additional education funding. Corbett points to the fact that he has increased state dollars for schools in recent years. But that doesn't impress advocates. Overall education spending dropped in 2011 after federal stimulus dollars used to prop up schools budgets disappeared and weren't replaced with state aid.

Earlier this month, the head of an education group said lawyers are readying a suit against the state for using an inadequate funding system that violates the state constitution's guarantee of public education.

The governor's comments in support of developing a schools funding formula are bookended by other moves that suggest his administration is trying to improve its image on education spending.

This week, Corbett's name topped a release announcing grants for schools to beef up security, based on legislation spearheaded by the Senate President Pro Tempore, Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson).

Last week, on the same morning Corbett was scheduled for his first visit to a Philadelphia district-managed public school last week, unnamed sources told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Corbett was planning to propose a $200 million hike in education spending. (The governor's visit at the Philadelphia school was canceled less than an hour before the event was set to begin, due to what his administration called disruptive protests.)

For some, the recent moves are not surprising, and inextricable from the political context of the looming gubernatorial election.

"I don't think there's any doubt about it," said pollster Terry Madonna, Franklin & Marshall College professor of political science. "The major problem I think the governor faces, certainly in terms of the policy concerns of the voters, would be education spending."

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