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Pennsylvania lawmakers' drive to depoliticize school funding adds intrigue to budget battle

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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — It's the first thing each Pennsylvania state lawmaker checks in a governor's brand-new budget proposal: How much more money the public schools in their districts would get. Then it's closely watched until the governor signs a budget bill.

This year, a move to de-politicize the process that drives billions of dollars in state aid to public schools is injecting another level of intrigue as Gov. Tom Wolf seems determined to give schools their biggest-ever one-year increase.

Many are watching whether the 15-member Basic Education Funding Commission can produce an objective formula to distribute the aid and win prompt support from the Republican-controlled Legislature and Wolf.

"There's broad agreement that the current system is broken, it desperately needs to be fixed and people see this as their best chance ever of getting that done," said House Education Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, a commission member. "So I think for those reasons I'm fairly optimistic that we can indeed do this."

The commission includes 12 lawmakers — split between Democrats and Republicans — and three senior aides to Wolf, a Democrat who took office in January after campaigning on a vow to fix what some see as the state government's neglect of Pennsylvania's poorest schools.

The law that created the commission, signed by former Gov. Tom Corbett last June 10, gave it one year to produce a recommended formula. Wolf and the Legislature ultimately must approve any formula before it can become law and, with the new fiscal year beginning July 1, there is little time to win support from potentially dubious rank-and-file lawmakers if it is to take effect with the new budget.

More cushion could be had should budget negotiations between Wolf and Republican majority leaders drag past July 1, as seems inevitable.

The challenge before the commission is not small.

Federal statistics show that Pennsylvania has the nation's largest spending gap between rich and poor school districts. Meanwhile, an Associated Press analysis found that the gap between what wealthier districts and poorer districts spend to educate children had widened dramatically in the last four years, following deep, Republican-engineered spending cuts that fell most heavily on Pennsylvania's poorest school districts.

Disparity is a key issue for the commission, members say. The commission, however, will deal only with how to distribute aid. Whether to actually increase aid will be settled separately in budget negotiations.

Wolf wants to pump an additional $500 million into public schools — about 7 percent more — under a formula his administration devised, in part, to help districts that lost a disproportionate amount of aid during the GOP's spending cuts of $860 million — or 11 percent — in 2011.

Republicans are not warm to the idea — for instance, the Democratic bastion of Philadelphia would get $159 million more, or 14 percent — and instead will push to use the commission's formula immediately, instead of waiting a year, as Wolf wants. Plus, increasing aid to schools is likely to require a tax increase, and Republicans have not signaled yet whether they will support that trade-off.

One commission member, Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, said that boosting aid to schools will help persuade lawmakers to pass the new formula because it helps close the gap between richer and poorer districts.

"A funding formula starts to level out those inequities," Sturla said. "If there's no new dollars, the only way to iron out those inequities is to take money from somebody to give it somebody else."

But such a diversion encroaches on a long-standing feature of Pennsylvania's politically driven system of distributing school aid. It's called "hold harmless." Under it, every district gets more money, when more is distributed, and no district ever sees a drop in state aid — unless every district gets less, that is.

As a result, millions of dollars in state aid each year go to wealthier or shrinking school districts, instead of to poorer or faster-growing districts that are more deserving, critics say.

Ending "hold harmless" is being studied by the commission. But ending it — or ending it without at least a few years to adjust to it — may be impossible politically.

"I understand that right is right," Saylor said, "but how do you get the votes to do that?"


Marc Levy covers politics and government for The Associated Press in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at mlevy@ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/timelywriter .

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