Pennsylvania Democrats Propose Additional Funding for State’s Poorest Schools

State Democrats in Harrisburg recently initiated measures to allocate $5.1 billion in fresh funding for Pennsylvania’s public schools. This move aims to bridge the gap between the state’s wealthiest and most underprivileged districts, a disparity deemed unconstitutional by a court last year.

A bipartisan commission on education funding recommended the legislation in the state House, spearheaded by Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster), in response to a Commonwealth Court directive to rectify the educational funding system.

Democrats stress that the General Assembly must eliminate the funding discrepancy in line with the 2024-25 budget, as it represents a constitutional imperative.

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

However, Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), the Republican counterpart on the Appropriations Committee, criticized the proposed legislation for not detailing the revenue sources to fund the plan. He advocates for resetting the system through zero-based budgeting.

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

With House Democrats holding a slim one-vote majority, they are poised to pass a budget reflecting their legislative priorities. Conversely, Senate Republicans, who control the state Senate, have signaled their intent to slash Gov. Josh Shapiro’s $48.8 billion spending plan as a starting point for budget negotiations.

Last week, the Senate approved a bipartisan reduction in the personal income tax alongside the elimination of the tax on electricity. This move is estimated to result in a $3 billion reduction in revenue, signaling their stance on budget negotiations.

Moreover, the Senate is reviving a school voucher program that could allocate up to $10,000 in tax dollars for private school tuition. This measure aims to avoid the budget impasse that occurred last year due to disagreements over the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) program.

Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R-Indiana) highlighted that in the past two budgets, the General Assembly has granted record funding increases. The Legislature approved a $525 million increase in 2022, significantly less than Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed $1.25 billion increment. In the previous year, lawmakers greenlit a $567 million increase, a deviation from Shapiro’s initial $900 million proposal.

Pittman emphasized the need to find common ground and respect taxpayer interests throughout the budget proceedings, considering the various school districts and their funding requirements.

The fair funding proposal in the forthcoming legislation by Sturla reflects over a decade of legal battles and extensive hearings by the Basic Education Funding Commission. This commission comprises lawmakers from both parties, members from the House and Senate, and officials from Shapiro’s cabinet.

“This is a very comprehensive piece of legislation,” noted House Education Committee Chairperson Peter Schweyer (D-Lehigh).

Commonwealth Court President Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer, in a decision dated Feb. 7, 2023, emphasized the General Assembly’s failure to fulfill its legal mandate related to educational funding. The court highlighted disparities in resources and opportunities for students in districts with varying property values and income levels.

According to the funding commission, 371 out of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts have an adequacy gap, spending less than $13,704 per pupil, the median expenditure by districts meeting the state’s academic performance standards.

The decision followed a lawsuit filed in 2014 by a coalition of parents and school districts, underscoring the state’s failure to provide a thorough and efficient public education system as mandated by the Constitution.

Cohn Jubelirer refrained from outlining a specific solution, leaving it to the General Assembly and executive branch to address the funding discrepancies.

The $5.4 billion funding gap identified by the commission stresses the need for additional resources, with $5.1 billion earmarked as the state’s responsibility. The remaining $291 million falls on school districts with low taxes despite inadequate funding.

Sturla’s bill proposes $1 billion in tax relief over the next seven years for districts that raised taxes to secure adequate funding. It also aims to reform the funding model for cyber charter schools to yield substantial savings for districts.

Republican budget expert Grove raised concerns over the proposal, citing the absence of property tax increases and the reliance on the state’s reserves as the primary revenue source.

Education Law Center’s senior attorney Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg disputed Grove’s contention that additional funding isn’t required to meet the Commonwealth Court order. He emphasized the deficiencies in funding that affect district staffing, learning resources, and school infrastructure.

House Democrats’ budget negotiator, Harris, expressed willingness to consider proposals from across the aisle. However, he emphasized the urgency of addressing the court ruling and the paramount importance of prioritizing students’ needs.

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

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

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