School Aid Remains Rendell's Big Challenge

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Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell spent his first year in office in an uphill battle for the education agenda that defined his candidacy. And if it's true that politics is the art of half a loaf, it's possible he's still feeling pretty hungry.

Taking office last January, the energetic former Philadelphia mayor carried an ambitious to-do list, dominated by a massive overhaul of what experts contend is one of the most inequitable school financing systems in the country.

But the Democrat stumbled onto a rocky political landscape: a legislature dominated in both chambers by Republicans. Mr. Rendell had to accept a deeply compromised version of the education package he originally proposed.

As his first year draws to a close, his reviews vary. To some, he extracted miraculous education victories from a disinclined legislature. To others, he settled for crumbs and failed to tackle big-picture school-funding problems.

Most acknowledge the difficulty he faced with an opposition-party legislature, and are willing to wait at least one more year before judging his ultimate success in improving education for Pennsylvania's 1.8 million schoolchildren.

"To know Rendell is to know he lives to fight again," said G. Terry Madonna, a political analyst who directs the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Millersville University, near Lancaster, Pa.

Scaling Down

Gov. Rendell proposed $560 million in new school spending last March, as well as a 2.5 percent hike in the state's basic education subsidy. He wanted to cut local property taxes, drive more money to poorer districts, and boost the state's share of education spending from 36 percent to 50 percent. He offered to finance those changes largely with a 34 percent hike in the personal-income tax and expanded slot-machine gambling.

Lawmakers later that month adopted a bare-bones budget before Mr. Rendell could present any of his key education proposals. To regain leverage, the governor vetoed the entire basic education subsidy, forcing some districts to threaten closure. ("Pennsylvania Schools Wait, Worry as Budget War Continues," Oct. 8, 2003).

That standoff lasted until Dec. 23, when the $7.3 billion education budget for fiscal 2004 was finally signed. In the end, he settled for $278 million in new spending, but got a bigger subsidy increase than he had sought—2.9 percent. Lawmakers promised to provide $175 million that low-performing districts can use to improve achievement, but not until the fall of 2004.

The legislature approved a 10 percent hike in the income tax—less than a third of what Mr. Rendell wanted—but reached no agreement on property-tax reduction, slot- machine gambling, or revising the way the state distributes money to districts.

Mr. Rendell's aides called the new funds a "down payment" on a larger future investment, and said it was a political triumph to raise school spending when most other states cut it, and to get an income-tax hike through an anti-tax legislature.

"For us to get any of our agenda is mind-boggling. It's a major feat," said Donna Cooper, the governor's policy director.

Democrats blame the GOP for blocking money the schools need to improve.

"It was really an unfortunate missed opportunity," said state Rep. T.J. Rooney, who is also chairman of the state Democratic Party. "Republicans don't think as big as Ed Rendell does, and they fought him every step of the way."

But Josh Wilson, the political director of the state Republican Committee, said the governor's plan was "overly ambitious" and that party members "held their ground" against tax hikes and school spending they thought unjustified.

'Beginning of a Journey'

Mr. Rendell kept education in the limelight, said Ronald Cowell, a former state legislator who now is president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, a Harrisburg advocacy group. But he laments that no progress was made on designing a reliable and more equitable school-funding formula.

One study showed that poor districts in Pennsylvania spend as little as $5,300 per pupil annually, while the wealthiest spend as much as $14,000. Several other studies have estimated that it will take $1 billion to $2 billion more a year to equalize spending among districts.

Experts acknowledge that the state doesn't have a workable funding formula.

"We need a formula that's more than, 'whatever you got last year, add some, and a few dollars more or less for this or that,'" said William T. Hartman, a Pennsylvania State University education professor who focuses on school finance. "I'm outraged," he said. "After six months of battling back and forth, very little has changed in school finance."

Joseph Bard, who directs the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, said his members by and large think Mr. Rendell "kept the faith" by holding up subsidy payments as leverage on a better package for schools. But the funding picture has changed so little that it bodes poorly for real improvement, he said.

Timothy Potts, the executive director of the Pennsylvania School Reform Network, a school advocacy group, wishes that Mr. Rendell had fought harder to tackle the funding-formula issue during the first year and "determine what is the cost of success in education" in Pennsylvania.

It is unrealistic to expect Mr. Rendell to deliver on all his promises in the first year, said Millersville University's Mr. Madonna. Refraining from attacks on Republican leaders and being willing to compromise will give him political capital he can use to gain more ground, Mr. Madonna said.

Pennsylvanians will be better able to judge their governor in a year or two, Mr. Potts added, when they can see better whether his first year was "the beginning of a journey down a path that is better for kids, or a resting place."

Vol. 23, Issue 18, Pages 15, 18

Published in Print: January 14, 2004, as School Aid Remains Rendell's Big Challenge
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