Pennsylvania Democrats Propose New Funding for State’s Poorest Schools

More than 50 lawmakers have co-sponsored the plan to fix the commonwealth’s education funding formula.

Penn Wood High School in the William Penn School District in Landsdowne, Pennsylvania on June 15, 2023. (Amanda Berg/Pennsylvania Capital-Star)

Democratic lawmakers in Harrisburg took the first steps last week to provide $5.1 billion in new funding for Pennsylvania public schools to close a gap between the wealthiest and poorest districts that a court last year declared unconstitutional.

The legislation in the state House, proposed by Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster), follows the recommendation of a bipartisan commission on education funding to comply with a Commonwealth Court judge’s order to fix the education funding system.

The General Assembly has a constitutional imperative to end the funding disparity starting with the 2024-25 budget, Democratic lawmakers say.

“The judiciary has spoken and we have a responsibility to address the unconstitutional nature of our education system,” House Appropriations Committee Chairperson Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) told the Capital-Star on Monday. “For me, I don’t know how we can deal with anything else without dealing with that.”

But Harris’ Republican counterpart on the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), criticized the proposed legislation for not including revenue to pay for the plan. Grove said he also believes resetting the system through zero-based budgeting is the answer.

“Nothing in the Commonwealth Court ruling says we need more money,” Grove said.

House Democrats have a narrow one-vote majority and are likely to pass a budget that reflects their legislative priorities. But Republicans who control the state Senate fired an opening shot in budget negotiations last week clearly signaling their intention to slash Gov. Josh Shapiro’s $48.8 billion spending plan.

On May 7, the upper chamber passed a bipartisan reduction in the personal income tax and eliminated the tax on electricity that would add up to an estimated $3 billion reduction in revenue.

The Senate also took steps to revive a school voucher program to provide tax dollars of up to $10,000 for private school tuition. An impasse over the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) program stalled budget negotiations for nearly six months last year.

Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R-Indiana) in a statement Monday noted that the General Assembly has provided record increases in funding in the last two budgets. In 2022, the Legislature approved a $525 million increase, but less than the $1.25 billion Gov. Tom Wolf proposed in his final budget. Last year, lawmakers agreed on a $567 million increase; Shapiro had proposed a $900 million in his first budget.

“There are 500 school districts across the commonwealth, and each have their own definition of what fair funding means. Both the majority and minority Basic Education Funding Commission reports did reach agreement on formula modifications to provide predictability and stability to school districts,” Pittman said, adding, “we will continue to look for ways to reach common ground and respect taxpayers as part of this year’s budget.”

The fair funding proposal in Sturla’s forthcoming legislation is the product of more than a decade of litigation and days of hearings by the Basic Education Funding Commission, which include lawmakers from both parties in the House and Senate and members of Shapiro’s cabinet.

“Nothing in this piece of legislation should come as a surprise to anybody,” House Education Committee Chairperson Peter Schweyer (D-Lehigh) said. “It is the work that the legislature has been doing ever since the fair funding decision came down.”

Commonwealth Court President Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer said in a Feb. 7, 2023, decision that the General Assembly has not fulfilled its legal mandate and has deprived students in school districts with low property values and incomes of the same resources and opportunities as children in wealthier ones.

The funding commission found that 371 of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts have an adequacy gap, meaning they spend less than $13,704 per pupil. That’s the median per pupil spending by the districts that meet the state’s academic performance standards.

The decision, which lawmakers chose not to appeal, followed a four-month trial in a lawsuit filed in 2014 by a group of parents and school districts who claimed the state had failed the state Constitution’s mandate to provide a thorough and efficient system of public education.

Cohn Jubelirer, a conservative judge, did not instruct the General Assembly on how to fix the system, leaving the solution for the Legislature and executive branch to determine.

Last year, the Basic Education Funding Commission held dozens of hearings across the state where students, parents, educators, and administrators spoke about the challenges and deprivation they faced in the state’s neediest districts, both urban and rural.

In January, the commission voted 8-7, largely along party lines, to adopt a report that determined there is a $5.4 billion gap between what schools receive now and adequate funding as determined by the spending of the state’s most academically successful schools.

The $5.4 billion figure includes $291 million that is the responsibility of school districts that have lower taxes despite less-than-adequate funding. The remaining $5.1 billion is the state’s responsibility.

Sturla’s bill would also include $1 billion in tax relief over the next seven years for districts that have hiked taxes in an effort to generate adequate funding, money to reset the baseline funding that all school districts receive, and it would reform how cyber charter schools are funded to provide several hundred million in savings for school districts.

“This is a very comprehensive piece of legislation,” Schweyer said.

Republican budget maven Grove said the proposal doesn’t include the property tax increase and fails to provide a revenue source other than the state’s reserves. Shapiro’s office has projected that the state’s surplus and rainy day fund will total $14 billion at the end of this fiscal year on June 30.

“I’d actually like to thank them for being honest … on how much they want to spend over the next seven years,” Grove said of the Democratic plan. “If they want to spend the money over the next seven years it needs to come with a tax increase.”

Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, senior attorney at the Education Law Center, said Grove’s assertion that the Commonwealth Court order doesn’t require the state to spend more is incorrect.

“What they’re hanging that on is this line [from the decision] that the remedy doesn’t need to be entirely financial,” Urevick-Ackelsberg said, adding that the ruling identified deficiencies in funding that affected the ability of districts to provide sufficient staff, instruments of learning and safe and modern schools.

Harris, the House Democrats’ chief budget negotiator, said he is open to proposals from House and Senate Republicans.

“If there is another proposal that they have to address the Commonwealth Court ruling, we would love to see it. We can talk about that,” he said.

But faced with an obligation to Pennsylvania’s students and the possibility of additional litigation if the Legislature fails to act, Harris said doing nothing is not an option.

“This is not a nice-to-have. This is a must-do,” Harris said.

(This article was updated at 2:30 p.m., Tuesday, May 14, 2024, to include a statement from Sen. Majority Leader Joe Pittman.)

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

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