Earmarks reek of favoritism

When it comes to school district funding, some Pennsylvania lawmakers are playing a game of favoritism.

Anyone who doesn’t like it should start speaking up because, otherwise, the game will continue.

While the 2013-14 state budget passed June 30 showed a 2 percent funding increase for the state’s 500 school districts, we’ve since learned that an additional $30.3 million in supplemental education funding will trickle down to 21 select school districts – leaving other school districts and taxpayers wondering why they were excluded.

The answer lies within the budget negotiating process that goes on behind closed doors, where lawmakers are free to craft language directing money to specific districts. Perhaps the lawmakers’ actions would be easier to understand if they negotiated in public and explained their intentions.

Instead, the finished budget showed the $30.3 million divided into 12 supplemental funding categories, including two labeled for rural and small school districts, a description that could be applied to almost every district in Blair and neighboring counties.

But as detailed in a story published Sunday, only the Philipsburg-Osceola School District, with students in Clearfield and Centre counties, will get a “Rural School District Supplement” of $500,000. And only the Penns Valley School District in Centre County will get a “Small School District Supplement” of $500,000.

Factors such as enrollment, aid ratio and tax rates were used to allow them to qualify while ruling out all others.

The same sort of restrictive selection applied to larger school districts, as well.

Lawmakers labeled one of the supplemental funding categories for districts in third-class counties, where populations range between 210,000 and 499,999, double the size of Blair County’s 127,000 population.

Yet, of the 154 school districts in the state’s third-class counties, only Hazleton Area in Luzerne County will get the supplemental funding of $1 million. It qualifies, according to the state, not only because it’s in a third-class county but also because its market value/personal income aid ratio and its enrollment level fell within specific ranges – factors that eliminated the other 153 districts.

Rather than urging local lawmakers to muscle their way into this negotiating process, we urge them and others to push for eliminating these supplemental allocations – which are nothing more than political earmarks – and begin working on a comprehensive education funding formula.

In February, the Education Law Center of Philadelphia pointed out that Pennsylvania is one of three states in our nation with no formula, and as such, its lawmakers “cannot guarantee that state education dollars are being distributed accurately, fairly or transparently.”

The supplemental education funding allocations in the state’s 2013-14 budget is further proof of that shortfall.