Education Secretary pushes Wolf funding plan to lawmakers

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Education secretary is arguably Governor Tom Wolf’s most prominent cabinet position.

The man he chose, former Lancaster School District superintendent Pedro Rivera, spent three-and-a-half hours in front of the House Appropriations Committee Monday morning selling his boss’s vision. At least, he tried to sell it.

“I’m not convinced that continuing to throw money at some of these school districts is gonna be the answer,” said Representative Keith Greiner (R-Lancaster) who represents the Conestoga Valley School District.

Conestoga Valley was mentioned in the hearing as an example of Pennsylvania’s broken funding formula. Pennsylvania recently was singled out by the U.S. Department of Education as being one of the worst states when it comes to inequities in funding between richer and poorer school districts.

Representative Bill Adolph (R-Delaware) is the Appropriations chair. He said the unfairness pointed out by the feds gave him sleepless nights because he believes the legislature does prioritize education. But he also pointed out reverse unfairness in Pennsylvania’s funding formula.

Adolph said Duquesne School District, in western Pennsylvania, is number one in state aid at $14,264 per pupil.

Two Midstate districts are among the lowest in state aid. Conestoga Valley gets $2,060 per student and Derry Township in Dauphin County gets $2,096 per student.

Adolph also said the wealthiest 25 percent of school districts have 32 percent of students and receive just 15 percent of the state funding.

He said 25 percent the poorest districts have 28 percent of the students get 47 percent of the state funding.

Many lawmakers seemed to wonder how much more is the funding supposed to be targeted at the poorer districts?

“We’re essentially throwing money at zip codes rather than students,” said Representative Mike Vereb (R-Montgomery).

Wolf’s plan to plow more money into public schools, especially poorer ones, has many lawmakers mistrustful.

“So, we infuse all this cash into these districts, what limits them from continuing to raise taxes?” Vereb asked. “In this budget, we’re throwing money at low-performing, low-income districts and saying to the rest of you, ‘pay up.’ ”

Rivera repeatedly promised that there are accountability measures in the governor’s plan that will have oversight of the billions more he’s seeking.

“We’re trying to be mindful of the taxpayer,” Rivera said, “but at the same time ensuring that money is going right into the classrooms.”

Wolf also has allies who are dismissing the criticism in the Capitol. They say Wolf ran, first and foremost, on more money for schools and he won the election handily.

“Governor Wolf has carried that through and has offered a budget proposal that a lot of Pennsylvanians want, but maybe a lot of politicians have problems with,” said Representative Kevin Schreiber (D-York).

But Schreiber and politicians of both parties do agree the school funding formula in Pennsylvania is deeply flawed.

Vereb is co-chairing a legislative commission to study it and says it’s focusing on a per-student dollar amount that’s more fair.

Rivera’s also working on the commission. He’s also attempting to convince skeptical lawmakers to green light the governor’s plan. Both are tall orders.

“This is a robust proposal,” Vereb said. “People down our way are saying it makes Governor Ed Rendell look like a member of the Tea Party.”

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