Advocates, lawmakers say Pa. education aid tied to political clout

 Gov. Tom Corbett addresses a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, file)

Gov. Tom Corbett addresses a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, file)

When Pennsylvania’s Republican-led legislature added more than $30 million in education aid to Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget last month, lawmakers decided to target $14.5 million to districts with high numbers of English-language learners and $4 million to districts with large concentrations of students in charter schools.

But they managed to devise the formulas for these supplements in such a way that Philadelphia’s school district, which has nearly half of the state’s charter students and one-quarter of its English-language learners, got none of these funds. This in a year when the district was desperately begging Corbett and legislature for additional state aid just to remain solvent.

In fact, the extra money for schools impacted by charters and ELL students went to only six districts around the state — most of it, perhaps not coincidentally, in communities represented by powerful legislators.

In all, just 21 of the state’s 500 districts were the beneficiaries of 12 different supplements added this year to the state’s basic education funding awards. According to an analysis by the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks, $22 million of those funds are going to areas represented by eight of the highest-ranking lawmakers in the General Assembly, five of them Republicans.

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And of the 37 lawmakers representing the districts that benefitted from extra aid, 33 are majority or minority committee chairs, vice chairs, secretaries or in some other leadership position. Only two of the 21 districts have no Republicans among their legislators.

“The General Assembly and the governor have delivered education dollars in a way that cherry-picks a small group of school districts for additional funding, but ignores the remaining 479 school districts,” said Rhonda Brownstein, executive director of the Education Law Center. Her group analyzed the distribution of basic education aid in Pennsylvania.

Big winners

York City and three of its surrounding districts were big winners. House Republican Majority Whip Stan Saylor and Republican Rep. Seth Grove, who represent parts of York county, boasted in the York Daily Record that they and their colleagues “[voted] as a bloc” and crafted an education aid bill that would help keep local property taxes in check.

But the biggest single beneficiary was Allentown, home of Senate Majority Whip Patrick Browne (R-Lehigh), which received $8 million.

Many advocates said the last-minute manuvering to complete a state budget, which in Pennsylvania is generally an exercise conducted behind closed doors, doled out additional education dollars in a way that that is less fair, predictable and transparent.

“Legislators decided which particular school districts were going to get money based on politics,” said Sharon Ward, director of the liberal-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. “Then they created those artificial supplementals in order to drive money to those particuar school districts.”

Some state lawmakers agree that education funding is unfairly and irrationally distributed throughout Pennsylvania.

“Who gets the money often depends on the party in power, often depends on factors that are political,” said Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D-Chester). “If anything in this budget should be above politics, it should be our formula through which we give money to our schools.”

On the House floor this month, Rep. Michael Sturla (D-Lancaster) also argued that Pennsylvania needs a “fair, sane funding formula” for school districts.

But Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware) said that education funding is not determined by political clout. He points to the funding package crafted for Philadelphia’s school district as proof.

“The city of Philadelphia does not have a single member elected to the Majority Caucus in the Senate,” he said. “Yet the Philadelphia public school district was the subject of a great deal of legislative action, a great deal of discussion in the budget, and a very large portion of additional funding directed to Philadelphia.”

The package put together for Philadelphia totals about $127 million, far short of the extra $180 million in combined city and state funds that the district had requested. And most of it will come from the city and borrowing, not the state.

Formula, or patchwork?

The state’s formula for distributing education aid is included in a piece of legislation called the “school code.” In addition to the charter and ELL supplements, the school code was revised this year to include a special growth supplement for districts adding enrollment, a small district supplement, a rural district supplement, a second class “A” county school district supplement, a third class county district supplement — and other such specialized categories. Six of the 12 so-called formula changes, whose titles sound general, were written in such a way to benefit only one district each.

Besides Philadelphia, several of the state’s largest and neediest districts, including Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Chester, got nothing through these mechanisms.

In addition to York, Allentown was a big winner, receiving more than half, or $8 million, of the state’s $14.5 million English-language learner supplement.

To be sure, many of the districts that received these supplements, including York and Allentown, are struggling and have real needs.

But two of the four districts with the highest concentration of charter students, Chester-Upland and Philadelphia, got none of the funds meant to help districts deal with high charter enrollment. Almost all of the $4 million set aside for charter schools, $3.75 million, went to York, which has the second-highest proportion of charter students after Chester-Upland.

Philadelphia ranks next. But the other $250,000 went to Midland, a small district in the western part of Pennsylvania that is the home of state’s largest cyber charter, some of whose top leadership have been under investigation by a federal grand jury. PA Cyber is one of the largest employers in the Midland region. Midland ranks number four in terms of charter enrollment.

The English-language learner supplement was distributed to five of the seven districts with the highest percentages of ELL students.

But the amounts varied widely. For instance, Allentown has just over 18,500 students and Reading just below 18,500 students; in Reading, more than 18 percent of students are ELL, while in Allentown about 11 percent are ELL. Yet Allentown got $8 million, while Reading got $1.5 million.

York, which is less than half the size of Reading and has a lower proportion of ELL students, also got more than Reading: $1.7 million.

These results are products of language like this, which describes just one district, Allentown:

(I) To qualify for the English language learner high incidence supplement, a school district’s 2012-2013 market value/income aid ratio must be greater than seven thousand ten-thousandths (0.7000) and its English language learner concentration must be greater than ten and eight tenths percent (10.8%). (ii) the English language learner high incidence supplement shall be calculated for qualifying school districts as follows: (A) (i) For qualifying school districts with a 2011-2012 average daily membership greater than eighteen thousand five hundred (18,500), multiply the qualifying school district’s 2011-2012 average daily membership by eight million dollars ($8,000,000). (ii) divide the product from subclause (i) by the sum of the 2011-2012 average daily membership for all qualifying school districts with a 2011-2012 average daily membership greater than eighteen thousand five hundred (18,500).

Similar language pinpointed Reading, Lancaster, York and Lebanon. But Kennett Consolidated and Hazleton, both of which have higher proportions of ELL students, got nothing through this formula change.

Another way the funds were driven out was through a “growth supplement” for districts with increasing enrollments. Again, just three districts qualified, and they were all in York County: Dover Area, West York Area and Northeastern York Area.

For the growth supplement, a school district will qualify based on the following criteria:

2012-2013 MV/PI AR greater than 0.5100 and less than 0.6200
2011-2012 adjusted ADM greater than 3,200 and less than 4,000
2011-2012 equalized mills greater than 21 and less than 23
number of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals under the national school lunch program on October 31, 2012, greater than 1,200 and less than 1,700

Silver lining

Ward, of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, said there is a “silver lining” to the way the legislature went about adding the funds. She said it recognizes that school districts are hurting from cuts to their aid that began in 2011. Some legislators and administration officials maintain that state education funding has not been cut at all and, in fact, has been increasing — reaching this conclusion by blaming the problem on the loss of federal stimulus dollars that poured into the state in 2009 and 2010 and were used to substitute for some state aid.

“They get the fact, at least the Senate does, that a growing school district needs more money; districts with high poverty and a high tax effort need more money; districts with high numbers of English-language learners need more money,” said Ward. “There are the bones of a rational formula in there, but the problem is that they need to put all that together in a way that benefits all districts fairly. And they have not.”

Brownstein agreed.

“Poverty, number of students learning English, rapid growth — these are all important student and district factors that should be applied in a fair, accurate and transparent education funding formula,” said Brownstein. “What’s unfortunate is that the General Assembly and the governor have chosen to apply these factors to only a handful of districts. The impact for schools and students throughout the Commonwealth could have been greatly improved if our legislative leaders had simply used these factors to distribute education dollars to all 500 school districts.”

Ward and Brownstein said that 81 percent of reductions to districts since 2011 remain in place.

Pileggi, the Senate Majority Leader, admits that the education funding formula is not perfect — and he said it wasn’t perfect under former Gov. Ed Rendell, either. He blames the state’s so-called “hold-harmless” provision, which prevents school districts from receiving less state aid than they did in the previous year, regardless of student population.

“The hold-harmless provision … is really the stumbling block to a fair allocation of taxpayer dollars to benefit students,” he said. “That really prevents those dollars to be reallocated to where they’re needed more, which is the district that is fast-growing.”

As for Philadelphia’s request for an additional $120 million from the state and $60 million from the city to help it close a funding shortfall, the solution devised by Gov. Corbett’s office with the help of key legislators and business leaders includes a $45 million, one-time payment not tied in any way to a formula or need — like a charter or ELL supplement.

Instead, the money was raised through an apparent agreement with the federal government to forgive part of a longstanding state debt. It is not part of the school code, but of a “fiscal code” that has not yet seen final approval. The House is scheduled to take up the bill on Monday.

Most of the other extra money for Philadelphia comes through state permission for the city to tax itself more heavily in the future. The legislature gave the go-ahead for the city to extend a 1 percent sales tax that was due to expire in 2014, and earmark the funds, now used by the city, to generate $120 million for the district starting in 2014-15. It rejected the path preferred by City Council and Mayor Michael Nutter — a $2-a-pack cigarette tax.

Philadelphia has about 12 percent of the K-12 students in the state, and receives about 12 percent of the money distributed through the basic education formula. Nearly one in five low-income students in the state — 18 percent — live in Philadelphia.

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