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Report Fails To Head Off Trial on Pa. School-Finance System

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Pennsylvania's 5-year-old school-finance lawsuit appears headed for trial this summer as state officials contend that poorer districts already get enough aid.

Money is not the answer to the education woes in the state's poorer regions, according to a report released last month by a commission appointed by Gov. Tom Ridge to address issues raised by the legal challenge.

"Too often the debate over public school finance focuses on levels of finance and overlooks the quality of public schools," said Eugene W. Hickok, the commission's chairman and Mr. Ridge's secretary of education.

The commission questioned "whether merely providing more money, without significantly changing the way in which school districts spend that money," would spark school improvement.

The report argues that the state already addresses equity, using district wealth as a guide to earmark 80 percent of its $5.5 billion in K-12 funding. One of the state's poorest districts receives as much as $3,719 per pupil from the state, while one of its richest districts gets $401 per pupil from the state.

Negotiations Continue

Negotiations for a settlement of the suit continued last week. But a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, a coalition of 215 school districts that are plaintiffs in the suit, said the new report offered no common ground.

When the commission was appointed last fall, coalition leaders had expected its report would pave the way for a settlement, said Arnold Hillman, a consultant to the coalition.

But the trial date is Aug. 12. "We expect we'll be in court on that date," he said.

The commission decided not to recommend a new, fairer funding system for the state--one of its original tasks. While the state-aid system attempts to level the playing field, more than 60 percent of school funding in Pennsylvania comes from local taxes. That system forces low-wealth districts to tax local property at high rates or do without.

The school districts' coalition proposed a new tax system for the state that would virtually eliminate local property taxes while funding schools using a new 2.5 percent state income tax and new business taxes.

The commission, however, proposed no major changes to the state tax code. Instead, the group made several recommendations that it argued would help focus educators on student performance.

In the end, the commission concluded that addressing equity should focus not only on how much money is spent but on the quality of the programs purchased.

The task facing Pennsylvania is similar to what New Jersey is doing to answer a court ruling that its school-finance system is unconstitutional, said Sean Duffy, a spokesman for Mr. Hickok.

Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican, as is Mr. Ridge, has proposed setting state funding levels in New Jersey according to the costs of providing programs that meet the state's definition of a "quality" education. (See Education Week, May 29, 1996.)

"We agree on the idea that instead of focusing on a number, you peg funding to a quantifiable product--a product in turn pegged to quality education," Mr. Duffy said.

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