May 24 — 12:00 am, 2007

More dollars from Harrisburg a ‘tough sell’ this year

District looks for more than what is now in governor's budget

To close a massive funding gap forecast for next school year, the Philadelphia School District is banking not only on passage of Governor Rendell’s education budget and its substantial increase in education aid, but on approval of earmarks, programs, and concessions totaling an additional $55 million from the state.

Despite a strong push by education activists who lament that Pennsylvania’s school funding system continues to be among the most unfair in the country, legislative leaders strongly doubt Philadelphia will get all the dollars it is counting on to avoid what could be crippling cuts in schools and classrooms.

“The prospect for the [Philadelphia] schools getting more money this year is bleak at best,” said Dave Foster, a spokesman for Northeast Philadelphia Rep. John Perzel, who as Speaker of the General Assembly worked deals with Governor Rendell that helped bring an additional $302 million to the city schools over the past five years.

His successor as Speaker, Dennis O’Brien, is similarly pessimistic. “We’re in an extremely tight financial situation,” said his spokesman, Bill Patton.

Pennsylvania’s General Assembly is contending with reduced federal aid, flattening tax collections, demands for more mass transit funding, skyrocketing prison costs, and Rendell’s proposal for expanded health care for low-income people. The governor is seeking a hike in the state’s sales tax to help cover the costs.

Because of the declining federal revenue, simply maintaining existing state operations, including its current contribution levels to local school districts, will cost the state as much as $700 million more annually in the years ahead, according to legislative staffers.

While the District’s reputation has improved somewhat in Harrisburg since it has been under state control, the tight budget situation and Rendell’s request for a sales tax hike from 6 to 7 percent reduce its chances of getting all it wants.

“There’s a greater understanding that Philadelphia is a relatively low-spending urban district,” said Ron Cowell, a former legislator who is president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, which has been seeking school funding reform. “But I see little appetite among both Republicans and Democrats for any tax hike.”

Cowell said that while legislators are nearly unanimous in believing that pre-K schooling improves students’ learning, they question if the state can afford the $75 million “Pre-K Counts” initiative that the governor has proposed.

Foster, Perzel’s spokesman, said, “There’s very little support for the governor’s budget.”

Rendell’s proposal includes a 6.4 percent overall increase in public school funding statewide, with big boosts in spending for early childhood and classroom technology. Much of the increase is directed toward specific purposes, which limits the District’s ability to use those funds for normal operating costs such as teacher salaries.

But the District is asking for more, particularly for renewal of a $22 million earmark to run alternative schools for disruptive students that is not now included in Rendell’s budget. It also assumes the state will allocate an extra $10.5 million toward charter schools, $5 million for transportation, and $3.2 million more for autistic services.

It also wants permission to use $19.1 million in funds designated for tutoring and two other state programs to help cover existing costs – what the District labels “flexibility.”

The District and local advocates for increased school funding have only a few weeks to make their case. Floor debate of the proposed budget and proposed amendments was scheduled to start May 21, with a June 30 deadline for state budget adoption.

Spokespeople for House Appropriations Committee Chair Dwight Evans and Republican Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi of Delaware County agreed that the District faces a tough fight for extra funding.

Gary Tuma, a spokesman for the Senate Appropriations Committee, predicted another cliffhanger in which the legislature might miss the deadline and not adopt a budget until July. A late state budget that failed to deliver the anticipated revenues would require even larger cutbacks for city schools.

A spokesman for the governor said his office was awaiting the results of the state’s review of the School District budget, due May 23, before discussing the validity of the District’s revenue assumptions.

Public school advocates say they are in this fight for the long haul and frame it as not just Philadelphia’s issue.

“Education is really the state’s responsibility,” noted Sheila Simmons, education coordinator for Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, citing the state constitution’s mandate for legislators to provide a “thorough and efficient system of public education.”

With nearly two-thirds of public school children living in poverty, the District has a good case for more money, she argued.

Rendell’s administration has not reversed a decades-old decline in state support for schools. Today, the state covers just over a third of total education spending, whereas most states pay 50 percent or more.

Jerry Jordan, vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said his union is lobbying for more state money, focusing on specific issues, such as reducing class sizes.

But Cowell said that Philadelphia has a better chance of getting an increase in charter school reimbursement and more special education funds, because other districts are clamoring for that as well.

Joseph P. McLaughlin Jr., associate fellow at Temple University’s Institute of Public Affairs, predicted the District would once again in June be in a fight to the finish for a sliver more of the fiscal pie.

While he agreed that the District’s standing in Harrisburg has improved, he added, “Helping Philadelphia in the legislature is always a tough sell.”

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