Pennsylvania budget nearly ready as lawmakers finalize education funding plan

HARRISBURG — Lawmakers in the state Capitol are finalizing details of a recent way to fund public education and are nearing a budget agreement, a week after a deadline to approve a recent spending plan.

Cornerstone for over $47 billion The budget is expected to include investments in K-12 public education and higher education. And that funding has been the biggest sticking point during negotiations.

Leaders reached an agreement in closed-door talks on how much recent money would go into the public school system, but they did not agree on how to allocate it, Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Ind.) said at a news conference last week.

It’s not yet clear how much recent money lawmakers will add to the more than $16 billion they already spend each year to fund local school districts. Public education advocates — as well as Philadelphia’s top officials — have been asking the state to add $1.4 billion to public education.

Leaders are also close to agreeing on changes to the Cybersecurity Charter, including the creation of Cost Refund Fund for school districts, Pittman added.

On Monday, the leaders “overstepped our bounds” this is and dotting our Is“said House Finance Committee Chairman Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia), a key player in the negotiations, with the budget bills likely to begin the legislative process early this week.

Unlike last year’s budget talks — which erupted after Gov. Josh Shapiro negotiated a controversial school voucher program with Republicans, he later vetoed this position at the request of Democrats — this year’s negotiations appear more tepid. House Democrats, Senate Republicans and Shapiro continue to say the negotiations are headed in a positive direction.

Lawmakers are working to create a new system for funding public schools after a Commonwealth Court judge ruled last year that the current way public schools are funded in Pennsylvania is unconstitutional.

Officials spent months gathering public input and studying the issue to create a system that would “appropriately and equitably” meet the needs of students regardless of their ZIP code.

But Democrats and Republicans continued to disagree, with members of each party filing their own reports to the appropriations committee. Democrats then unveiled a plan to increase state funding for public education by more than $5 billion over seven years.

“Our group has been committed from the outset to addressing the Commonwealth Court ruling, and we believe we are close to reaching a consensus on how to get that done and get money to counties,” Harris said Monday.

A small group of legislative leaders, along with Shapiro, are negotiating a deal privately. Their staffs typically start budget negotiations, and the leaders come to the table when they get close to an agreement.

“I think the leaders and staff of the Republican and Democratic parties who work hard deserve a lot of credit for continuing to move the ball down the field.” Shapiro told PennLive on Sundayaccording to a recording of the interview released by the governor’s office.

“I said last week that we were in the red zone. I think we’re deep in the red zone now and we’ll get there,” Shapiro said. “It’s tough being part of the only divided legislature in the country, but … all parties treat each other with respect.”

Vouchers were expected to be a major sticking point in this year’s negotiations, but Senate Republican leaders have avoided the debate, focusing instead on existing or new tax breaks to help children attend private schools.

Republican leaders say they will continue to fight for school choice in future budgets, Pittman said last week, and a Senate committee advanced an $8,000 tax credit for private school and homeschool students.

“Empowering parents, at least to some extent, is an absolute priority,” Pittman added.

Shapiro’s budget proposal, released in February, included spending exceeding $48.34 billion. Several parts of the proposal — such as legalizing recreational marijuana — proved unpalatable to Senate Republicans.

Lawmakers were sent home over the weekend while legislative leaders continued to hammer out a deal. All lawmakers received a mass email Saturday containing a bomb threat that prompted the evacuation of the state Capitol, but Harris told reporters they continued budget negotiations during that time. Lawmakers returned to work Monday without an lively threat to the Capitol.

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