Among advocates, a subtle divide over Pa. school funding

 The Rev. Naomi Leapheart is among protesters congregating outside Gov. Tom Wolf's Harrisburg office to press their case for a funding formula that applies to all state spending for schools. (Mary Wilson/WHYY)

The Rev. Naomi Leapheart is among protesters congregating outside Gov. Tom Wolf's Harrisburg office to press their case for a funding formula that applies to all state spending for schools. (Mary Wilson/WHYY)

Church groups seeking a radical solution to the large funding disparities among school districts are taking their message to Pennsylvania’s Capitol, even as other advocates continue to support an incremental approach to restoring education funding. The demonstrators note the bipartisan support for a new funding formula that is widely considered to more fairly divvy up state aid for schools. They want the formula to apply to all state spending for schools.

But they are in the minority.

Longtime education advocates who lobbied for a new funding formula say applying it to the entire education budget would leave about two-thirds of school districts with less money.

“That is just not politically possible to get anything through like that,” said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. “And it would also be a shock to those school districts. They would have to make massive cuts to their programs and staff, and those students in those districts would hurt.”

Buckheit and others support a gradual phase-in of the new formula, applying it to any hike in education funding, or slowly apply it to more and more of the existing spending on schools. 

More than a dozen demonstrators sang and prayed outside the governor’s office Monday for an immediate switch to the recommended funding formula. Some said they will fast until 8 p.m. every day until the June 30 budget deadline. In recent days, they have clarified their position, saying that they prefer the education budget to be increased by $3.6 billion and “fairly distributed as soon as possible.”

“We come with loud voices,” said the Rev. Naomi Leapheart of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Lancaster County. “Our voices can literally make these walls tumble to the ground — the walls of inequality, the walls of racially biased funding for our public schools.”

Buckheit said he sees why others support a more immediate approach to restoring education funding. A gradual phase-in of the new education funding formula means it would take about a decade for inequities to fade – and only if lawmakers approve steady increases in state education funding year after year.

“The problem will go away over a period of time,” said Buckheit.

The full Senate is slated to consider the funding formula recommended by a commission last week. The legislation does not spell out when the method would be implemented or how it would be applied.

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