Bye. House takes first step to enact fair education funding plan

Pennsylvania school districts would save more than $500 million a year under a proposal to set a statewide tuition rate for charter schools that is part of House Democrats’ education plan.

The $8,000 per student cap is part of an 87-page education funding bill that will be considered by the state House. The House Education Committee approved the bill Tuesday by a 14-11 vote along party lines, with all Republicans in opposition.

While the bill is not technically part of the budget that the General Assembly must adopt by June 30, it does include Gov. Josh Shapiro’s budget proposal to enhance education funding to close the gap between the state’s wealthiest schools and those with fewer resources.

House Bill 2370 would implement recommendations from a bipartisan commission to end inequities in Pennsylvania’s school funding system, which a Commonwealth Court judge last year found unconstitutional.

Rep. Jesse Topper (Bedford), the top Republican on the Education Committee, cautioned that Democrats, who hold a majority in the House of Representatives, will have difficulty gaining Republican leadership in the Senate without bipartisan work on the education funding bill.

“If this is going to be the centerpiece of the budget, it’s not just the House Democrats that will need an agreement,” Topper said.

In addition to charter school reforms, including a ban on advertising and sponsorships using tax dollars, HB 2370 would codify recommendations from the Commission on Basic Education Financing, which in January adopted a report with recommendations for funding reform.

Chief Justice Renee Cohn Jubelirer ruled in February 2023 that the state’s reliance on property taxes to fund public education creates inequality among communities. She ordered the state legislature to fix funding disparities.

The bill calls for the state to pay $5.1 billion over the next seven budgets to enhance per-pupil spending in 371 school districts to the level of spending in the state’s most successful school districts, according to state Department of Education standards.

The bill would also provide an additional $200 million annually, divided under a revised fair funding formula among all 500 school districts. It would also freeze core funding for school districts – called “capture” – at 2023-2024 levels.

Finally, the bill would provide tax breaks to 169 school districts with the highest property tax rates to raise matching funds. These districts would make $1 billion available in capital payments over seven years.

Rep. Michael Sturla (R-Lancaster), who co-chaired the committee, noted that the tax credit element would allow some districts to maintain tax levels for seven to 10 years.

“This is about helping local taxpayers in addition to helping the kids in our school,” Sturla said.

Rep. Joe Ciresi (D-Montgomery) was the lead sponsor of the cybersecurity charter reform legislation that passed the House last summer by a 122-81 vote, but it was not considered in the Senate. This language is currently included in the Education Funding Bill.

Critics of cyber charter schools say they reap windfall tax benefits because they have lower costs but receive the same tuition that school districts must pay to brick-and-mortar charter schools. Complicating the situation is the requirement that school districts must pay charter school tuition for special education students based on an average of the total special education costs, rather than the student’s individualized needs.

Anne Clark, executive director of the PA Public Charter Schools Coalition, said she rejects the blanket claim that charter schools have lower operating costs than established schools. Faculty costs are similar, while the costs of providing technical support and infrastructure are higher.

“Cutting funding for our most vulnerable children at a time when we are trying to improve our educational and economic outcomes seems foolish and counterproductive to what we are trying to do as a state,” Clark said.

Last month, the public education group Education Voters of Pennsylvania released a report citing net assets of the four largest cyber organizations totaling $486 million. The group also said public records requests revealed that more than $21 million was spent on advertising.

Setting cybersecurity tuition at $8,000 per student would save Pennsylvania school districts $530 million a year, Ciresi says. The bill would set special education tuition for cyber education students at 1.64 times the regular education tuition, or $13,120. Tuition rates will be updated every three years.

Ciresi said his legislation would fix a lack of transparency in cyber chartering organizations.

“When we look at our cyberspace, we don’t have school boards made up of elected officials. We do not organize meetings in a public place,” he said. “We can’t even go and listen to what’s going on or comment on it. We are not responsible for where the money goes.”

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