By Michele

Moser Deegan

A study recently commissioned by the Pennsylvania Department of Education finally gives state residents specific data about how much needs to be spent so that all public school children can reach state-mandated achievement levels by 2014.

The Denver consulting firm APA Inc.'s study examined the costs associated with getting children to master 12 academic areas and become proficient in reading and math.

Based on financial data from the 2005-06 school year, the average per-pupil cost should be $12,057 - a figure adjusted for the needs of poor students, English-language-learners, and special-education students. In 2005-06, school districts in Pennsylvania spent $9,512 per pupil. The total cost for all school districts to achieve these standards is $21.86 billion, $4.60 billion higher than current spending.

What is now clear is that 474 out of 501 school districts in Pennsylvania currently spend below this level. Though the magnitude of these figures is considerable, the cost, in terms of future economic and community benefits, will be much greater if we fail to educate all of Pennsylvania's students to a level that allows the state to thrive in an increasingly competitive global environment.

Problems with the current funding system have persisted. Reliance on local property taxes has been a problem over the last few decades. It has been intensified by the fact that state aid in Pennsylvania accounts for only about 36 percent of school revenue. The U.S. average is about 47 percent.

The added costs of cyber schools and school health and pension programs further hamper districts' ability to meet the needs of all students.

Though the Rendell administration has increased funding for public education since 2005, adding more than $2.4 billion, without an accurate funding formula the distribution of state aid to school districts is held hostage by the political process.

Responding to public concerns, several school-funding bills are being considered in legislative subcommittees. One would create a joint legislative commission on public school finance. If approved, the commission would be charged with setting a state education funding formula based on the results of the new cost study.

To be clear, the study does not provide a remedy to our funding formula. This decision is left to our elected officials, with the support of the residents of the commonwealth.

The political environment appears fertile to develop a solution that gets to the root of the problems rather than addresses only the symptoms. Coupled with favorable public interest in high-quality public education, we have a historic opportunity to make significant changes in our education funding system.

An opportunity to overhaul a major state program does not come along often. Without public support for a comprehensive solution, education funding reform may continue to elude us.

The results of the cost study give us an education funding goal. We must take this information and create a funding system that will help all our children reach higher academic levels. This would create a brighter future for them and for all of us.

Michele Moser Deegan is an assistant professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown and director of the Lehigh Valley Research Consortium.

For the full report on the education finance study, go to http://go.philly.com/CostingOut.