HARRISBURG — Most Lehigh Valley school districts would get less of a financial boost from the state under a formula developed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf than they would under a method championed by a bipartisan coalition spearheaded by the Legislature.
With the start of next fiscal year less than 21/2 months away, Wolf's plan is drawing heat from Republican lawmakers who accuse him of playing politics with students by forgoing the bipartisan formula he previously praised.
On Tuesday, Wolf announced he will use his own mathematical formula to distribute the extra $208 million in education money to districts hardest hit by 2010-11 budget cuts.
It's not right to start a new funding method without first restoring $370 million in cuts districts endured five years ago, Wolf said.
"Since Day One, I have been fighting for historic investments in education at all levels," Wolf said in a statement. "The new fair funding formula, which I support, cannot truly be fair unless the cuts are fully restored."
Republicanscried foul and threatened lawsuits. They claimed Wolf's plan would drive too much of the new money to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, while the state's 498 other districts would get less than they would have under the bipartisan formula and because the budget proclaims none of the new money can be "expended until enabling legislation … is enacted."
"Today's announcement by Gov. Wolf that he will be distributing 2015-16 basic education funding without a legislative formula is a blatant attempt to disregard the General Assembly," said Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson.
No district would get less money in the remainder of 2015-16 than it got in 2014-15. The fight is over how high a percentage increase districts would get for per-pupil expenditures and the Ready to Learn block grant.
In the Lehigh Valley, the Bethlehem Area School District would be the only district to benefit from Wolf's formula, receiving an additional $370,483 — 1 percent — for a total of $31 million, according to House GOP and Department of Education records.
A dozen area districts, including Parkland and Whitehall-Coplay, would see increases 1 percent to 5 percent less than what the bipartisan plan calls for.
Allentown's funding increase would be 2 percent less than under the bipartisan plan. But it had received extra state money to weather the recession — funding that remains part of its overall allotment.
Four districts would statistically break even.
Still, the back-and-forth rhetoric is shaping up to become a classic constitutional fight between the legislative branch's right to approve, with conditions, how taxpayer money is spent and the executive branch's right to manage the flow of that money.
"It's far too simplistic for the Legislature to say exactly how each cent can be used and all the executive does is write the check," said Muhlenberg College political science professor and pollster Chris Borick. "It's always a question, and often a constitutional question, of how much discretion does a governor have in allocating and courts have been asked to intervene. And in this case, that's exactly how we are heading."
In the 2014 election, Wolf defeated incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbettwho never was able to live down voter anger over the education cuts he and the Legislature imposed when temporary federal stimulus money vanished in 2010-11. Wolf vowed to restore those cuts and fix the state deficit, which meant various tax increases he never spoke about on the campaign trail with the exception of a severance tax on natural gas drillers.
The Legislature fought those tax plans when Wolf unveiled them last year. Republican lawmakers — with little to no Democratic support — then passed a series of policy and spending plans Wolf later vetoed, causing some state education money to be withheld from school districts for nine months.
During that stalemate, the Legislature accepted a report outlining a new funding formula that sought to take politics out of how money is distributed to public schools.
The formula would send state tax dollars to local districts based on annual weighted measures that rely on U.S. Census records and data from the state Revenue and Education departments, among others. That formula gave more money to poorer districts and less to wealthier ones.
Wolf wanted the new funding formula to start in the 2016-17 fiscal year. Republicans inserted language in the fiscal code — a separate budget document that dictates how money is spent — that the extra education money would be distributed using the new formula in 2015-16.
Wolf vetoed the fiscal code in March, killing the formula. The final budget document Wolf allowed to become law in March did not include a specific language concerning the formula. But the budget did say the extra money could not be spent without the "enabling" fiscal code in place.
Without a full fiscal code in law, Wolf is allowed to spend the education money as he sees fit as long as he does not go over the allocated amounts in the budget, said the governor's spokesman, Jeff Sheridan.
"We adopted the formula approved by the bipartisan Basic Education Funding Commission in order to bring more equity into how this money would be shared," said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre. "At the time, the governor praised the commission, its findings and its formula — only then to turn around and ignore it."
The 2016-17 fiscal year begins July 1.