2011-06-16 / Local & State

Do Poorest Pa. Schools Have To Take Bigger Cuts?

By Marc Levy

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – When Gov. Tom Corbett chose to cut Pennsylvania’s way out of a projected multibillion dollar budget deficit, he started by taking a disproportionate chunk of state aid away from the state’s poorest school districts.

Why not approach it by taking a disproportionate amount of state aid away from the districts that can best afford it – the wealthiest?

“That’s a great question,’’ said Jim Buckheit of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

At this point, top lawmakers appear to be in the final weeks of assembling a budget that will deliver a heavy reduction in state aid to public schools, and they are unlikely to reverse the approach to cuts in state aid originally taken by Corbett.

Corbett, a Republican, proposed slashing more than $1 billion, or about 15 percent of funding for public school instruction in the 2011-12 fiscal year that begins July 1. The figure does not include pension payments for public school employees that are set to rise by more than $320 million.

The proposed cuts fell most heavily on the poorest districts because they receive the lion’s share of state aid, Corbett’s education secretary, Ron Tomalis, said. In fact, some districts stand to lose more money than would even be sent to other, wealthier districts, he said.

Buckheit and others suggest that it would be fairer to ask school districts to absorb a uniform per-student reduction in state aid, rather than the wild disparity in per-student reductions that resulted from the budget plan Corbett proposed in March.

A GOP budget bill that passed the House last month would send about $240 million more than Corbett’s budget to public schools, although some of that extra money would go to wealthier districts such as North Penn in Montgomery County, whose subsidy would grow by nearly $3 million. That’s a bigger boost than the House’s budget plan would deliver to Harrisburg, Allentown, Erie and some other school districts with higher poverty rates that are planning layoffs.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, agreed that some poorer school districts still face disproportionate reductions and said Republican senators will press for more money for them when they meet in the coming days in closeddoor talks with their fellow Republicans in the House and governor’s office.

Pileggi would not say how much more money Senate Republicans will seek.

Poorer school districts typically get a larger portion of their budgets from the state than wealthier districts based on a formula developed by the Legislature that determines how the money is divided among school districts, The formula is designed to help districts that simply cannot raise as much from local taxes and that have higher poverty rates.

But the distribution of money also must meet the political test of legislative approval. That means that some school districts get more money than they otherwise would under the formula – a total of nearly $400 million extra over the past decade that the Philadelphia based nonprofit Education Law Center of Pennsylvania says would have gone to poorer or needier districts.

The issue is complicated, said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre.

A number of legislators who represent wealthier, growing suburban school districts are unhappy every year because the amount of state aid they get, while increasing in total dollars, is shrinking as a percentage of the school district’s budget. As a result, it would be tough for those legislators and school districts to accept disproportionately sized cuts in state aid, Corman said.

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