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Increases in state education aid carefully targeted select districts

By by Dale Mezzacappa for the Notebook and Holly Otterbein for NewsWorks on Jul 10, 2013 04:45 PM

When Pennsylvania's Republican-led legislature added a bit more than $30 million in education aid to Gov. Corbett's proposed budget in its final negotiations last month, legislators decided to target $14.5 million of that money to districts with high numbers of English language learners and $4 million to districts with high 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 the charter students in the state and one-quarter of the English language learners, got none of these funds. This in a year when it was desperately begging the governor and legislature for additional state aid just to remain solvent.

In fact, the money for districts impacted by charters and ELL students went to only six districts around the state -- most of it, perhaps not coincidentally, in the areas 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 NewsWorks, $22 million of that money is going to areas represented by eight of the highest-ranking lawmakers in the General Assembly, five of them Republicans.

And of the 37 lawmakers representing the districts that benefited from extra aid, 33 are majority/minority committee chairs, vice chairs, secretaries or in some other leadership position. Only two of the 21 school 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, based on her group's analysis of the distribution of basic education aid.

Big winners

York City and three of its surrounding districts were big winners. House Majority Whip Stan Saylor and 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 had 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, which received $8,000,000.

The last-minute manuvering to complete a state budget, which in Pennsylvania is generally an exercise conducted behind closed doors, resulted in changes in the funding mechanism for distributing state aid that many advocates say represents a further departure from a fair, predictable, and transparent education funding formula that reaches for adequacy as well as equity. 

"I would say that the legislators decided which particular school districts were going to get money based on politics," said Sharon Ward, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. "Then they created those artificial supplementals in order to drive money to those particular school districts."

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

“Who gets the money often depends on the party in power, often depends on factors that are political,” said 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, State Rep. Michael Sturla (D-Lancaster) also argued that the state 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 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 $180 million in combined city and state funds the District had requested. And most of it will come from the city, not the state.

Formula, or patchwork?

The formula for distributing state education aid is included in 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 $8 million -- more than half -- of the $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 the $4 million set aside for charter schools -- $3,750,000 -- went to York, which has the second-highest proportion of charter students after Chester-Upland.

Philadelphia ranks next. But the remaining $250,000 went to the district with the fourth highest concentration of charter students -- Midland, a small district in the western part of the state that is home to the state's largest cyber charter. Some of the top leadership of that school, PA Cyber, have been under investigation by a federal grand jury. PA Cyber is one of the largest employers in the Midland region.

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 distributed was through a "growth supplement" for districts with growing enrollments. 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

Still, said Ward, there is a "silver lining" to the way the legislature went about adding the funds, because it reflects a recognition that districts are hurting from reductions in their funding starting 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," she said. "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 say that 81 percent of reductions to districts since 2011 remain.

Pileggi, the Senate majority leader, admits that the education funding formula is not perfect — and he said it wasn’t perfect under 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 $120 million in additional funds from the state and $60 million from the city to help it close its 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 -- but instead raised through an 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 money for Philadelphia to help it close its $300 million shortfall 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 surcharge 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 the mayor -- 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 of the low-income students in the commonwealth -- 18 percent -- live in Philadelphia.

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Comments (16)

Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on July 10, 2013 7:56 pm
Notice that none 0% went to Philadelphia because nobody in Harrisburg pays the slightest attention to any Phildelphia Legislator who no doubt is principally worried about his expenses (Mr. Cohen) and car allowances. Our leaders really suck and we waste PFT dues on these clowns why?????
Submitted by Education Grad ... on July 10, 2013 7:17 pm
It's interesting that Sen. Pileggi, who is from Chester, didn't exercise his political muscle to obtain more funds for the Chester-Upland SD. Instead of the Commonwealth funding education in Philadelphia, the Commonwealth is forcing Philadelphians to shoulder more of the funding for the District, even though Philadelphia already exerts a higher tax effort than wealthier districts do. Parents, where are you? FILE A CLASS-ACTION LAWSUIT AGAINST THE COMMONWEALTH FOR UNDER FUNDING THE SCHOOL DISTRICT OF PHILADELPHIA. Otherwise, nothing will change.
Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on July 10, 2013 8:49 pm
That lawsuit filed by Rural School districts was lost in the 1990s. It is settled Pennsylvania law that the state dies not have to equalize school funding. EVERYONE HAS STOP TALKING NONSENSE. IT IS NOT FILED BECAUSE IT IS A LOST CAUSE.
Submitted by Stewart (not verified) on July 10, 2013 10:13 pm
That's because Pileggi doesn't depend on votes from Chester itself. His constituency is in the affluent areas of Chester county further west. He could care less what the people in Chester-Upland think of him and he'd no more lift a hand to actually help "those people" than he'd poke himself in the eye with a rusty nail.
Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on July 10, 2013 8:53 pm
Thank you for the article. Until Pennsylvania's education funding formula is "transparent, equitable and reliable," it will continue to lag behind other states. The fact that the PA General Assembly sanctions the grave disparity in education funding to continue is as obnoxious as their bloated salaries / benefits / perks. Both are unethical and shortsighted.
Submitted by Stewart (not verified) on July 10, 2013 10:24 pm
The real gist of this funding picture for our schools is quite clear...there is no more to be had. Not only are we still suffering from the vast cuts made two years ago, but now the "bailout" has turned out to be a chimera as well. The city's part has been finagled around, but basically amounts to $50 million borrowed against the future proceeds of the 1% sales tax extension (which we'll have to pay interest on later) and an estimated $30 million in additional property tax revenue (though exactly how that will be produced has never been made clear.) The state kicked in exactly $2 million in new basic education funding, since the rest of the so-called increase in this area was already a part of the "doomsday budget" and doesn't represent any actual increase over what was available before. The $45 million that came from the Federal forgiveness (which means it's really Federal money, not state money at all, since they wouldn't have it if it weren't being used for this) still hasn't been passed, though at least the House has finally returned to take up the fiscal code bill. The city can't even come up with much more money at this point, since they've passed the statutory limits on raising new taxes for this year, so we won't get a revival of the increased Business Privilege Tax (now that the cigarette tax has failed) as a way to increase funding locally. All this, when it's the state that has controlled the district and its finances for 12 years. It's also the state-controlled SRC that signed off on the last two PFT contracts that are now being held up as the "problem". Not only will we be expected to give more than the state and the city combined, but the provisions attached to the $45 million in Federal cash will be used as a cudgel to try and extract all the other concessions that they want as well, even the ones that have nothing to do with money. This is the crunch. They'll use this against us, vilify us if we don't knuckle under, and use the patently unconstitutional prohibition of strikes to try and destroy us if we dare to resist. This is more than just a funding problem, this is an existential crisis for both the PFT and the continued existence of a true Philadelphia public school system.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on July 11, 2013 2:26 am
Thank you for including the language of the formulas used. Cut-offs used to determine aid are extremely troublesome, as middle class families, often just shy of qualifying, know. What was the definition of "market value" and "income aid ratio" for a school district? The dependence on Federal aid is extremely hypocritical of the professed Republicans.
Submitted by Annonym (not verified) on July 11, 2013 6:56 am
Many "no tax" Republicans and Democrats also gush over agriculture subsidies and military subsidies (e.g. military contractors, military bases, etc.). The federal government is expected to bail out banks but not schools.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on July 11, 2013 2:50 pm
Very true. Bailing out the banks was controversial, but in the end necessary. Unfortunately, banks are easier to connect directly with everyone's paychecks than are schools.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on July 11, 2013 2:34 pm
So here's the link to the definitions, and looks like there are many more questions to be had there: Ultimately, Ms. Mezzacappa and Ms. Otterbein have done a great service to the public. It only takes a cursory look at the variable definitions, and then that these are already neatly calculated in spreadsheets, to see how the selective cut-offs choose just a few districts. White collar criminals caught with "their pants down" - thanks Ms. Mezzacappa and Ms. Otterbein!!
Submitted by Brett Schaeffer (not verified) on July 11, 2013 3:12 pm
An additional clarifying point to the last paragraph: "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 of the low-income students in the commonwealth -- 18 percent -- live in Philadelphia." That second sentence -- that 18 percent of the state's low-income students live in Philadelphia -- is a reminder why simply using a student count to distribute education dollars is not an effective approach. It does not account for the resources required to educate different types of students -- students learning English, students in poverty -- to meet state academic standards. That's why it is critical for Pennsylvania to adopt an accurate, fair, and transparent education funding formula that calculates and distributes money based on those student differences.
Submitted by anon (not verified) on July 11, 2013 9:00 pm
how do these dirt bags sleep at night? no sense of fairness. no shame. pathetic.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 12, 2013 8:52 pm
You didn't support the man in the election and your wondering why your not receiving funding. He will be reelected for another four years and he'll still be looking at Pittsburg with his a__ pointing towards Philadelphia.
Submitted by tom-104 on July 12, 2013 9:08 pm
So in other words elected officials should only support the people who vote for them.? You don't believe in democracy at all, do you? All those people in all those wars died for nothing in you world.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 13, 2013 2:21 pm
OMG who is this dunce? Trust me the Gov. is going to lose big, his poll numbers keep declining with good reason.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 14, 2013 7:43 pm
The Philly delegation was busy protecting the state store workers at PA's taxpayer expense. They could have traded that for more funding, but they chose not to. This is what you get with a dogmatic delegation that always toes the union line. Easy to ignore. They'd rather suck in that UCFW cash and try to win the next election. Or not...

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