Its music program was eliminated, 12 percent of its teaching force laid off, and its junior high sports program was slashed.

"Cuts at the state level just kill us," said Jim Duffy, superintendent of the Fannett-Metal School District, a small system in south-central Pennsylvania.

Duffy stood in Harrisburg last week alongside education advocates from across the state calling for more public school funding from the state and fairer distribution of the money.

It has become a common and growing refrain that promises to intensify after an austere budget cycle in which school districts from Philadelphia to Allentown to York were forced to cut services and staff.

"It's not a Philadelphia problem," said State Rep. James Roebuck (D., Phila.), minority chair of the House Education Committee. "It's a statewide problem. There are districts that are in even worse financial condition than we are here in Philadelphia."

With a governor's race on the horizon, education advocates are preparing another push to get school funding addressed, including lobbying and legal action. Back on the job last week, state legislators are debating changes in charter school and special-education funding and a proposal to abolish school property taxes.

"This cannot go on," said Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a statewide organization formed in 2007. "We need adequacy and equity."

Gobreski, a Philadelphia public school parent, led the Capitol rally with people from 40 school districts.

Rhonda Brownstein, executive director of the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, is talking with districts and parents and studying possible court action.

"We are very seriously considering bringing a lawsuit challenging the current system as violating the state constitution, which requires that the legislature provide a system of thorough and efficient education," she said.

Pennsylvania, critics say, is one of only three states in the nation without a stable and transparent funding formula for distributing $5.5 billion in basic education funds. Many states use formulas that take into account a range of factors including district size, tax rate, and percentages of students in poverty, with disabilities, and with limited English, a law center report said.

The state ranks seventh from the bottom in the nation in the percentage of K-12 funding it provides districts - 34 percent, according to an Education Law Center analysis of 2011 figures. The national average is 44 percent.

Critics also are concerned about wide disparities across the state that leave affluent systems with libraries, planetariums, and a full menu of extracurriculars and electives, while less wealthy districts have crowded classes, crumbling buildings, and few support services.

It's a long-standing reality, critics say, but it has been exacerbated as Pennsylvania's share of education funding has dropped and poor districts haven't been able to make up the difference.

"This has got to be the defining issue of the governor's race if we want anything to change," said Lori Shorr, chief education officer for Mayor Nutter.

The Corbett administration and Republican lawmakers see matters differently.

Carolyn Dumaresq, Pennsylvania's acting secretary of education, said the state has a funding formula, spelled out in the school code, that says districts will receive at least the same amount as the previous year. Additional money is distributed based on enrollment and wealth.

Though Dumaresq noted that the annual dollar amount of state education aid had increased dramatically since the 1990s, its share of total spending on schools had not. As a consequence, local spending has increased at a faster pace.

She also said states that contribute a higher percentage of overall education funding, such as Hawaii, tend to exercise more control over local districts. "What we have in Pennsylvania is a long history of local control," she said.

She said she's also concerned about the state's ability to afford more funding. "Who pays for this? It all comes out of the taxpayer's pocket," she said.

Concern about inadequate school funding dates back decades. In 1991, the Pennsylvania Association for Rural and Small Schools sued the state over funding disparities. The state Supreme Court ruled it wasn't a matter for the courts.

Lawsuits filed in other states, including New Jersey and Ohio, however, have led to funding overhauls, prompting the education center to contemplate another suit, Brownstein said.

She cited a 2007 state report that concluded Pennsylvania underfunded its schools by $4.38 billion. Ed Rendell, who was governor at the time, pumped in federal stimulus dollars and used a funding formula, raising the state's share of funding to just shy of 44 percent.

When Gov. Corbett took office, the stimulus money was gone, and funding for Pennsylvania schools was reduced by about $1 billion.

This year, schools received $90 million more in basic education aid. Lawmakers also added $30 million in funding for 21 districts deemed most needy.

Some of the money went to fast-growing districts and to those with students in poverty and who speak limited English. But other districts with similar characteristics, such as Philadelphia, were snubbed, advocates complained.

"The money for education is being driven out not through any rational basis," Brownstein said, "but through politics."

Dumaresq countered that money went to districts with the greatest economic need.

"It's really difficult when you represent everyone. Do you give more to small districts? Is it rural education? Is it vocational education? Is it for English-language learners? Everybody has their self-interest," she said.

State Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon), chair of the Education Committee, said a fair funding formula was needed. But first, he suggests the state abolish school property taxes - which are forcing some people out of their homes - and replace them with a sales tax and slight increase in income tax. A shift in the revenue source for schools, he said, would force a reevaluation of how the money is allocated.

"What it will do is force us to look into this very unfair funding formula," he said.

Critics worry that eliminating the school property tax would hinder efforts to fund schools.

Education advocates said they realized changing the way the state funds schools would be a long quest.

"We're not naive enough to believe this is something that's going to happen fast," said Lawrence Feinberg, founder of the Keystone State Education Coalition and a Haverford Township school board member. "It's going to take a concerted effort."

INSIDE

Call for changes in seniority could rekindle debate over SRC powers. A2.

Pa. school sports group may revisit '75 ruling for cross-gender play. A3.EndText

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