A state commission Thursday called for a sweeping overhaul of Pennsylvania's education-funding formula, aimed at closing the nation's biggest spending gap between richer and poorer districts.
The formula recommended by the Basic Education Funding Commission, a bipartisan task force of lawmakers and key administration officials, would add more weight to factors such as poverty, non-English-speaking pupils, and charter payments, and would be a boon to cash-poor districts across the state.
Philadelphia's district, which is pressing Harrisburg for an additional $200 million in aid, would be a major beneficiary.
At a news conference on what he called "a big, big, big day for the people of Pennsylvania and the education system," Gov. Wolf hailed the panel's proposal, saying, "It makes allocating funds more transparent, fair, and predictable." He noted that Pennsylvania is one of three states without a consistent school-funding formula.
"Today we take an important first step," said Randy Albright, Wolf's budget secretary. But, he cautioned, "we have a long road of ahead us," noting that the key will be the overall amount that Harrisburg chooses to spend on education aid.
The legislature would have to approve the recommendations, and school funding ultimately will be tied to budget negotiations and Wolf's proposed tax on natural-gas extraction.
Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. praised what he called a "good, thoughtful formula," saying it "will go a long way in the future toward providing equity across rural, suburban, and large urban districts statewide."
The full plan will not be released until Friday, but according to the executive summary, it would boost subsidies significantly in some districts by changing how students are counted. Student population is a key factor in determining how much money a district receives. The plan calls for a new standard, a "weighted student head count," that would be bumped up by poverty levels, non-English speakers, and charter payments.
The work of the 15-member commission, which GOP Gov. Tom Corbett created last year, aimed to tackle disparities in how roughly $5.5 billion in state education aid is divided among the state's 501 districts. In some cases, similar neighboring districts received starkly differing amounts per student.
The panel's work evidently took on more urgency in recent months. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Pennsylvania has the biggest gaps in funding between rich and poor districts, and Philadelphia's fiscal crisis has worsened.
Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, echoed others when he said a new distribution formula only partially addresses the state's education-aid problems without more money being added.
"The General Assembly must now step up to correct the other long-standing problem with Pennsylvania's school finance system: It must correct the relatively low share of state funding provided to school districts," Buckheit said in a statement.
Joseph Bruni, superintendent of the William Penn School District, which was part of a school-funding suit last year, said that while the panel's report was "a step in the right direction . . . this doesn't add anything new to the conversation. Until actual amounts are in place, I will be reserving judgment."
Although the state's current complex funding formula takes local income levels into account, the new proposal approved unanimously by the commission makes a greater effort to factor in a district's concentration of poverty, which studies have shown greatly increases students' needs.
The commission "has recognized the significant and unique challenges facing schools that serve our most vulnerable learners," said Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center-PA. "Such districts are often hit with a double whammy: They must serve the most at-risk students while struggling to raise local revenue even as they tax at relatively high rates."
The plan also would give weight to how many students in a district attend charter schools. School officials have said that payments to charters are draining their budgets. In Philadelphia, roughly 60,000 students - more than 25 percent - attend charters, and the district says it needs help with its "stranded costs," such as maintenance of its now-emptier classrooms.
"With this funding formula, we're trying to help every student in the commonwealth have an opportunity to succeed, whether they're from Erie or Philadelphia," said committee cochairman Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery).
"There is nothing more important in our work than funding the education of our students," said Sen. Pat Browne (R., Lehigh), the other cochairman of the commission.
He said one of the challenges facing the panel - which ended up releasing its plan a week later than planned - was the diversity of a state that includes large cities and rural towns.
Some aspects of the plan are likely to appeal to rural lawmakers, including a formula to benefit large, sparsely populated districts. Others are certain to be controversial - including the fate of the "hold harmless" provision that prevents a district from losing aid from year to year.
The report released Thursday by the commission said a majority of the state's districts - 320 - would lose $1 billion in funding over time if the "hold harmless" provision was eliminated.
But State Rep. James Roebuck (D., Phila.) called the plan "a win-win proposal - there should be something in it for everyone to like." The lawmaker said the blueprint is a step toward fulfilling a requirement in the state constitution for fair and equitable school funding.
"I haven't had a chance to digest all of the report yet, but the concept that factors for funding are being considered in the formula such as poverty concentration, the number of non-English-speaking students, charter school enrollment, and local tax effort, should serve as a good starting point for discussion about fair funding for schools in our state," said James R. Scanlon, superintendent of the West Chester Area School District.