The Education Financing Reform Act passes the House of Representatives, while the Senate’s school voucher plan awaits implementation

A $6 billion plan to reform Pennsylvania’s public education funding system passed the House of Representatives by a 107-94 vote Monday amid growing debate over proposals to boost the amount of public funds available to pay private school tuition.

House Bill 2370 would implement the recommendations of a bipartisan commission that found Pennsylvania must spend an additional $5.1 billion to address school funding disparities that a state court found unconstitutional. The legislation would also end what critics call excessive overpayments to charter schools and set minimum salaries for teachers.

Supporters of the bill argued that if it passes the state Senate and is signed by Gov. Josh Shapiro, it would end decades of underfunding public schools that have deprived generations of students of an education they were entitled to under the state constitution. It would also refund taxpayers $530 million a year in tuition for cybersecurity services and provide $1 billion in property tax relief.

“HB 2370 cannot change the past,” said state Rep. Mary Isaacson (R-Philadelphia), who served on the Committee on Elementary Education Financing. “What he can and will do is change and transform the future of every school district and student across the Commonwealth.”

Republican lawmakers, who largely opposed this solutionstated that the plan was quickly passed by the House and represented a missed opportunity to change not only the funding system but also the fundamental nature of public education in Pennsylvania.

“When this ruling was announced, I thought this was our opportunity for transformative change,” Rep. Jesse Topper (R-Bradford), the top Republican on the House Education Committee, said during the House debate. “This was an opportunity for us to upend the status quo in terms of not only how we fund our schools, but also how we deliver education.”

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Senate Republicans, who will decide whether the upper chamber will consider the funding reform bill and in what form, are meanwhile focusing on expanding state school voucher programs after House Democrats rejected a bill negotiated with Shapiro last year.

The Pennsylvania Awards for Student Success (PASS) Act would make an additional $100 million in taxpayer dollars available to pay private school tuition for the lowest-performing students in the state’s public schools. The state already provides assistance for students to attend private and religious schools in the form of tax breaks for companies and individuals who contribute to scholarship funds.

An amended version of the bill passed the Senate Education Committee last month with bipartisan support. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R-Indiana) said the Senate Republican Party remains committed to “educational empowerment by engaging parents in their children’s education.”

In a statement on the passage of the House education bill, Pittman said every child in Pennsylvania deserves access to a high-quality education. But he echoed House Republicans’ concerns about increasing funding without examining the broader education system.

“The reality is that the General Assembly has consistently invested more money in educating fewer students across the state. “Accountability, reform and implementing ways to empower parents in their children’s education must also be key elements of Pennsylvania’s future education system,” Pittman said in a statement.

On Monday, rapper Jay-Z’s entertainment company, Roc Nation, held the first of several “Dine and Learn” events in Philadelphia to promote the proposal.

Dania Diaz, managing director of philanthropy at Roc Nation, told the Capital-Star that the events taking place over the next two weeks are intended to make residents of the state’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods aware of the program and answer questions.

“I hope that by the end of these two weeks there will be more people who will be able to talk about it, who will be able to share information and who will be able to take action on it,” Diaz said.

Labor leaders and public education advocates rallied against the Capitol steps proposal Monday afternoon, highlighting the connection between school voucher advocacy and billionaire Republican megadonor Jeff Yass, whose PACs have contributed tens of millions of dollars to Pennsylvania politics.

State Sen. Lindsey Williams (R-Allegheny) said at the rally that tax credit programs, which have grown to $340 million, funnel public money to misunderstood private and religious schools that may discriminate in admissions.

“It’s not a secret. This is the plan. This is a plan to dismantle public education,” Williams said. “People like [former U.S. Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos and Jeffrey Yass and entities like the Commonwealth Foundation and the Pennsylvania Family Institute have been working on this for years.

Williams noted that Shapiro, who last year vetoed funding for the PASS program to finish the state budget, called school vouchers unfinished business.

“I can tell you something. This is not our unfinished business. “Unfinished business is the minimum $6 billion we owe our students and families,” Williams said.

Chief Justice Renee Cohn Jubelirer ruled in February 2023 that Pennsylvania’s reliance on property taxes to pay for public education deprived students in less affluent communities of a constitutionally guaranteed opportunity for a public education.

Court Pa. sides with plaintiffs in K-12 school funding case

The decision came after nearly a decade of litigation by six school districts, a group of parents and education advocates, and a four-month trial. It was a landmark victory for students and the community, said Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center, which argued the case on behalf of the plaintiffs.

“Without legislative reform, the victory will be empty,” McInerney said at a rally hours before Monday’s House vote. “We have a historic opportunity to begin working toward constitutionality and upend the system that has led to apartheid in education, where black and brown children are more likely to receive an inadequate education.”

To comply with the Commonwealth Court’s order, the House-passed bill calls on the state to pay $5.1 billion over the next seven budgets to boost per-pupil spending in 371 school districts to the level of the state’s most successful school districts, as measured by 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.

The 87-page bill includes two other legislative priorities for House Democrats.

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

Contains legislation sponsored by state Rep. Joe Ciresi (D-Montgomery) to establish a statewide tuition rate for charter schools, which receive a range of different tuition fees based on school districts’ per-pupil spending. This solution would reduce district tuition fees by $530 million.

“We keep school choice, but we give taxpayers money back. The fees have been inflated for many, many, many years,” Ciresi said during the House debate.

The bill would also allow school districts to exploit additional elementary education funds to set a minimum wage of $60,000 for professional staff, including teachers, and $20 an hour for education support specialists.

Speaking at a rally on Monday afternoon, House Speaker Joanna McClinton (R-Philadelphia) said the legislation would make historic investments in upholding the Constitution and that Pennsylvania cannot afford to divert taxes to private programs.

“We are not going to be imposed on us, we are not going to allow outside interests in groups to come in and tell us how to do our job, because we have taken an oath, and that oath is to uphold the Constitution, and the Constitution tells us all our children should have a thorough and effective public education,” McClinton said.

John Cole of the Capital-Star staff contributed.

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