House Democrats are proposing $5.1 billion in new funding for the state’s poorest schools

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

Legislation passed in the House of Representatives, proposed by Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster), follows the recommendation of the cross-party education funding committee to follow a Commonwealth Court judge’s order to overhaul the education funding system.

The General Assembly has a constitutional imperative to end funding disparities starting with the 2024-2025 budget, Democratic lawmakers say.

“The justice system has spoken and we have an obligation to address the unconstitutional nature of our education system,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jordan Harris (R-Philadelphia) told the Capital-Star on Monday. “I don’t know how we can deal with anything else without dealing with this.”

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

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

House Democrats hold a slim one-vote majority and are likely to pass a budget that reflects their legislative priorities. But Republicans controlling the state Senate threw the first shot at budget negotiations last week, clearly signaling their intention to cut Gov. Josh Shapiro’s $48.8 billion spending plan.

On May 7, the upper house passed a bipartisan personal income tax cut and abolished the electricity tax, which would total an estimated $3 billion reduction in income.

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

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R-Ind.) did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

The fair funding proposal in Sturla’s upcoming legislation is the product of more than a decade of litigation and days of hearings before the Committee on Basic Education Financing, which included lawmakers from both parties in the House and Senate and members of Shapiro’s cabinet.

“Nothing in this legislation should come as a surprise to anyone,” said House Education Committee Chairman Peter Schweyer (D-Lehigh). “This is work that the Legislature has been doing since the Fair Funding decision was made.”

Chief Justice of the Commonwealth Court of Justice Renee Cohn Jubelirer said in: Decision of February 7, 2023 that the General Assembly failed to fulfill its legal mandate and deprived students in low-asset and low-income school districts of the same resources and opportunities as children in more affluent districts.

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

That decision, which lawmakers did not appeal, came after a four-month trial in a 2014 lawsuit filed by a group of parents and school districts who argued the state had failed to fulfill the state constitution’s mandate to provide a fair and effective public education system. .

Cohn Jubelirer, a conservative judge, did not instruct the General Assembly on how to fix the system, leaving the solution to the legislative and executive branches.

Last year, the Commission on Funding for Basic Education held dozens of hearings across the state where students, parents, teachers and administrators talked about the challenges and deprivation they face in the state’s neediest neighborhoods, both urban and rural.

In January, the commission voted 8-7, mostly along party lines, to adopt a report that found there was a gap between what schools currently receive and adequate funding, as determined by what schools spend most academically. a difference of $5.4 billion.

The $5.4 billion figure includes $291 million owed to school districts, which have lower taxes despite inadequate funding. The state is responsible for the remaining $5.1 billion.

Sturla’s bill would also include a $1 billion tax credit over the next seven years for districts that raise taxes to generate matching funding, money to reset the base funding all school districts receive, and would reform how cyber charter schools are funded provide several hundred million dollars in savings for school districts.

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

Republican budget specialist Grove said the proposal does not include a property tax boost and provides no source of revenue other than state reserves. Shapiro’s office projected that the surplus and rainy day fund would be $14 billion at the end of this fiscal year, on June 30.

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

Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, senior attorney at the Education Law Center, said Grove’s contention that the Commonwealth Court’s ruling does not require the state to spend more is incorrect.

“They hang it on this rope [from the decision] that the solution does not have to be solely financial,” Urevick-Ackelsberg said, adding that the ruling identified funding gaps that impact districts’ ability to provide sufficient staff, learning tools and secure and newfangled schools.

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

“If there is another proposal that should be included in the Commonwealth Court ruling, we would very much like to see it. We can talk about it,” he said.

But faced with obligations to Pennsylvania students and the possibility of additional legal action if the Legislature fails to act, Harris said doing nothing is not an option.

“It’s not a pleasure. It’s a necessity,” Harris said.

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