Fair education funding remains a central sticking point in Pennsylvania’s budget talks

Education equity advocates say Pennsylvania’s novel equitable school funding formula, which would exploit U.S. Census data rather than state Education Department data to calculate poverty rates, would fall brief of its goal by half.

The proposal by Republicans in the state Senate would amend legislation passed last month by the state House of Representatives to comply with a state court order to close a huge funding gap between the state’s richest and poorest school districts.

The House bill would allocate $5.1 billion to 371 school districts whose per-pupil spending is lower than the average for districts that meet state educational adequacy goals.

The Senate plan, discussed by Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R-Indiana) at a news conference last week, would cut that amount by between $700 million and $1.4 billion. Supporters say the census data paints a less exact picture of poverty than the state’s own data.

“If we don’t use accurate poverty calculations, we’re going to deprive kids in low-wealth schools of essential resources,” said Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center. “They still won’t have enough teachers, guidance counselors, advanced science labs, reading and math specialists, which we know are incredibly important for kids living in poverty.”

McInerney was one of a group of attorneys representing parents and education workers who sued Pennsylvania in a nearly decade-long lawsuit arguing that the state’s weighty reliance on property taxes to fund public education was unconstitutional.

Chief Justice Renee Cohn Jubelirer ruled in their favor last year and ordered Gov. Josh Shapiro and the General Assembly to eliminate disparities that deprived students from poorer communities of their constitutional right to a “thorough and efficient” education.

Jubelirer left the details to lawmakers, and a bipartisan commission made up of representatives from the House, Senate and executive branch, after months of hearings, proposed methods for calculating the funding shortfall that took into account factors such as poverty and the number of students learning English as a second language.

While the Education Department determines poverty levels for school districts based on public benefit enrollment data, Senate Republicans propose using data collected in an annual demographic survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.

During a July 3 news conference, Pittman said the disagreement over school funding is not so much about how much the state will spend, but how the money will be distributed.

“One of the biggest differences is not just education spending, but how that money gets to school districts,” Pittman said.

A Pittman spokesman did not respond to a list of questions about the proposed change, but did provide a statement on the overall progress of budget negotiations.

“Good progress is being made, but I continue to emphasize that nothing is done until everything is done. As we get closer to completion, the Senate looks forward to working with the House on how best to implement all the necessary elements of the budget,” Pittman said.

Shapiro, in a budget statement Sunday, praised Republican and Democratic leaders for “continuing to move the ball down the field” and said “we are deep in the red zone.” He added that each side treats the other with respect and is making compromises.

The House and Senate are scheduled for sessions on Wednesday and Thursday, but Senate Republicans face pressure to complete the process as the Republican National Convention begins next week.

Marc Stier, executive director of the Pennsylvania Policy Center, said the proposal appears to be an attempt by Republicans to show they are solemn about addressing the Commonwealth Court ruling while also seeking to contain costs in the long term.

The Republican proposal to exploit census data instead of Department of Education poverty data, Stier said, would cheat children in destitute school districts. He said he believes it would receive a frosty reception in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

“We think they are rejecting this proposal,” Stier said. “In my opinion, it will be a proposal that is so far from what we need that it will be very difficult to get through, even if the leaders want it.”

He added that while Philadelphia, where Democrats predominate, would see the biggest reduction in novel funding, some schools in Republican-dominated Senate districts would see larger percentage reductions.

The Wilkes-Barre Area School District’s (R-Schuylkill) district would see its funding gap reduced by nearly $25.5 million, a loss of more than 30%. In Sen. Judy Ward’s (R-Blair) district, the Altoona Area School District’s funding gap would be reduced by $12.3 million, or more than 22%, according to the Pennsylvania Policy Center.

McInerney of the Education Law Center said the census data does not adequately reflect poverty levels in schools because it is a sample of the entire community and includes families who choose to send their children to religious or other private schools. To determine the funding shortfall, the state must look at the demographics of children actually attending public schools.

“Who are the children served in each school district? What is the poverty level of the students who attend the school?” McInerney said.

The divided chambers of the General Assembly also sparred over alternatives to public education in last year’s budget and in the run-up to this year’s budget deadline.

In 2023, Senate Republicans, with Shapiro’s support, passed legislation to expand the state’s private school tuition voucher program to provide an additional $100 million to students in the state’s most disadvantaged districts. House Democrats defeated the bill, and Shapiro used his veto power to eliminate funding for the program to make the budget possible.

Shapiro signs final budget bill after delayed votes in Pennsylvania legislature

Stier said he believes expanding the voucher program is out of the question in the 2024-25 budget. The Senate Finance Committee passed Senate Bill 1280 last week, which would create an $8,000 tax credit for families to spend on education-related expenses such as tuition or tutoring.

“I think it was a show vote to show supporters that Senate Republicans still support this bill,” Stier said, adding that he doubted the bill would become part of the final budget.

McInerney said the tax credit is the equivalent of a voucher program.

“It has all the problems that a voucher has in that you’re giving public money to private schools without accountability, and also to private schools that can discriminate,” McInerney said.

Funding for the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln universities has also been a sticking point in recent budget negotiations. Allocations for the institutions, known as state universities because of their restricted state oversight, require a two-thirds vote to pass.

House Republicans have stalled funding bills over concerns about tuition hikes, transparency and social issues such as fetal tissue research.

The House Education Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved Senate Bill 1154, sponsored by Sen. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster), which would establish the Performance-Based Funding Council to develop a novel system for distributing funds to state universities.

Rep. Jesse Topper (R-Bedford), the top Republican on the Education Committee, said the bill would remove politics from statewide university funding decisions and replace it with data.

“We’re trying to evolve this into something that’s data-driven, that provides accountability, and that shows students and families who choose these institutions how they benefit in Pennsylvania,” Topper said.

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