School-funding formula clears final Harrisburg hurdle

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Legislators on Wednesday approved taking a key school funding decision from behind closed doors and instead running increased money through a bipartisan-supported formula.

HARRISBURG - Legislators on Wednesday approved taking a key school funding decision from behind closed doors and instead running increased money through a bipartisan-supported formula.

The House voted overwhelmingly to require increases in the state's main K-12 education funding line to be distributed under a formula recommended nearly a year ago by a commission of Republican and Democratic legislators and the Wolf administration.

The measure now goes to Gov. Wolf, whose spokesman said he will sign it into law.

Education groups said the law will be a welcome change from a system in which the distribution of money among Pennsylvania's 500 school districts has been decided each year in private negotiations over the state budget. This process will be fairer, they said.

"A formula goes a long way to help school entities develop their annual budgets," Nathan Mains, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said in a statement. "Additionally, a formula will help with the equitable distribution of school funding to alleviate the current disparities in how state dollars are allocated."

Pennsylvania has drawn national attention for the gap in spending between its poor and wealthy school districts. Last year, the U.S. secretary of education said the divide was the largest of any state's.

Once the bill becomes law, money the state adds to the main pot of money for K-12 schools will be distributed among school districts according to the formula. The current year's increase was run through the formula, but the law would make that an ongoing practice for future years.

The formula considers the number of students in a school district and accounts for students living in poverty, still learning English, or attending charter schools. A district's ability to pay for its schools would be accounted for through measures of household income and tax effort.

As legislators and the administration head into June with hopes of avoiding last year's budget impasse, at least one source of dispute appears to have been resolved.

"One of the major points of discussion last year was, how are we going to distribute the new education dollars," said House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R., Indiana). "That part of the discussion is over. So I think it takes one item off the table that we don't have to reengage in negotiations with."

But the question of how much total money the state will send schools - one of the major points of the last budget standoff - remains.

Wolf has called for large increases in school funding, while the Republican-led legislature has resisted the tax increases the governor has said are needed to provide the education money and meet other state obligations.

"It certainly makes the distribution less political," Bill Patton, spokesman for House Democrats, said of the funding formula. "But the overall question of how much of the state's money is invested in education remains just as political as ever."

klangley@post-gazette.com717-787-2141 @karen_langley