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Area leaders seek key to effective use of dwindling education funding

Education and business leaders from the Greater Johnstown area turned their focus Tuesday to how inadequate funding can lead to academic struggles, especially for students in poor regions.

A collaboration between the Greater Johnstown School District, Pitt-Johns-

town, Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Chamber of Commerce and The Educational Policy and Leadership Center led to discussions surrounding the various financial complexities and challenges facing public education.

During a breakfast at Holiday Inn-Downtown in Johnstown, guest speaker Ron Cowell, president of Harrisburg-based EPLC, spoke about Pennsylvania’s education funding system and its problems.

EPLC works to encourage and support the development and implementation of effective state-level education policies to improve student learning, increase the effective operation of schools and enhance educational opportunities for citizens of all ages

“It’s time to bring awareness and educate people on the difficulties facing school districts across the commonwealth,” said Michael Vuckovich, Greater Johnstown’s acting superintendent. “I think the most important thing we can do is educate everyone about these obstacles and start working together to find solutions.” 

Cowell noted that until 1983, the state share – 50 percent – was embedded in the funding formula for basic education, but it was removed that year after several years of underfunding the formula.

“The purpose of state money is to level the playing field,” Cowell said.

“Create more equal opportunity for kids, whether you are in a poor district or in a rich district. But we began to erode the effectiveness of that formula by underfunding it.

“The state has been budgeting all these years in part by shifting more and more financial responsibilities to the school districts and local taxpayers – now on a annualized basis exceeding $1.5 billion,” he said.

According to Cowell, Pennsylvania public schools now receive less funding from the state than they did in nearly a decade.

He said the biggest challenge for public education is to successfully educate a large percentage of youngsters in an environment where there is a concentration of great poverty.

“A lot of times there is a link between financially and academically struggling school districts,” Cowell said.

Mike Artim, president and CEO of Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Chamber of Commerce, said Cowell’s presentation was needed and important for the community to hear.

“I think we all recognize that our current funding system for schools isn’t working,” he said.

“The bottom line is, if you look at how states approach it, it’s not so much how much they’re spending. How much of that money is actually getting to the student is what’s important.

“When you look at it from that perspective, Pennsylvania does not rank well,” said Artim, the former CEO of Cambria-Rowe Business College.

“When you’re trying to compete regionally and the other states are putting more money towards the student and funding education and are putting more money in higher education than we are, you’re going to lose that battle.

“You can’t build capacity without a strong, educated workforce,” Artim said.

“We have to come up with a formula that puts more money to the student – that’s what the key is.”

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