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Pennsylvania needs $5.4 billion to bring underfunded schools up to par, commission finds

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Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
January 11, 2024

Pennsylvania would pay down a $5.4 billion funding shortfall over the next seven years under a proposal released Thursday to bring underfunded school districts up to par with those that achieve the commonwealth’s academic goals.

The new funding would be targeted to low-wealth school districts, where a state court found last year that the reliance on property taxes to pay for public education is inequitable and unconstitutional. The proposal would do so by establishing funding benchmarks based on the spending of the state’s most successful districts.

The proposal would provide an additional $1 billion in property tax relief to school districts that have been taxing property owners at the highest rates, $200 million in basic education funding, and $300 million for facilities repair and upgrades each year. 

“I believe the report not only meets our obligation to as a commission to make recommendations on the [basic education funding] formula, but also meets constitutional muster as directed by the Commonwealth Court,” state Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster), the Democratic co-chair of the commission, said. 

Advocates at the Education Law Center and Public Interest Law Center, which pursued the decade-long case challenging the funding scheme and won the historic Commonwealth Court decision last February, said the proposal would be life-changing for generations of students if it is followed by the General Assembly and Gov. Josh Shapiro.

Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, senior attorney at the Public Interest Law Center, said that while the seven-year timeline is longer and the numbers are smaller than advocates had hoped for, “the actual vision that lays out is still a transformative one that will allow countless additional children to to reach their potential.” 

Adopted by a 8-7 vote of the bipartisan Basic Education Funding Commission, the report containing the proposal is the culmination of three months of public hearings across the state, in which educators, students and advocates testified about the impact of Pennsylvania’s  inequitable school funding system. 

Each Democrat on the commission, except for Sen. Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny), and Shapiro’s designees, Deputy Education Secretary Marcus Delgado, Executive Deputy Education SecretaryAngela Fitterer, and Budget Analysis Bureau Director Natalie King, voted to adopt the report.

In addition to establishing funding targets for each school district, the report makes seven more recommendations to lawmakers:

  • Eliminate uncertainty in the funding formula as a result of fluctuating poverty levels and reset base funding at this year’s levels.
  • Reconvene the Basic Education Funding Commission again in 2029
  • Invest in school facilities
  • Examine charter school funding
  • Invest in the education workforce
  • Invest in support for students
  • And consider education issues beyond the scope of funding

State Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster), the commission’s Democratic co-chairperson, said the report’s recommendation to establish goals for adequate funding of each school district addresses the Commonwealth Court’s order to fix the system.

Pennsylvania passed the Fair Funding Formula in 2016, which determines how education funding is distributed across the state’s 500 school districts. But each school district receives a base funding amount set at 2014-15 levels that can never be reduced. Only new money is distributed according to the formula and that has failed to account for variables in school districts’ circumstances. 

The commission’s proposal lays out a new method for determining what adequate funding looks like and whether a school district falls short of that goal. It uses Pennsylvania’s academic performance standards to identify successful school districts and takes the median spending per pupil of those districts.

That figure, $13,704, is multiplied by a district’s student headcount, which is weighted for factors such as students learning English as a second language and poverty levels, among others. The product of those numbers is the adequate funding goal. The district’s adequate funding shortfall is determined by subtracting what a district spends from the adequacy goal.

Establishing adequate funding targets is the most important part of the recommendation, Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center, said. 

“That’s exactly, in fact, what the Commonwealth Court was directing the General Assembly to do,” McInerney said.

“So adopting those adequacy targets is a paradigm shift for Pennsylvania,” McInerney said. “Rather than looking at how much money comes in and doling it out based on how much comes in, we are looking at what children need to learn.”

Republican lawmakers were critical of the Democratic members of the commission for the proposed spending.

“We have been presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to modernize our Commonwealth’s education system and provide our children with a prosperous future. It’s unfortunate the Democrats on the commission were unable to come up with a new approach,” Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) said. “Instead, they want to spend billions on the same plan with no results. As I have previously stated, throwing more money into a failing system is not a solution.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Scott Martin (R-Lancaster) said he was thankful that the commission reached a consensus on several key issues to support struggling schools, but said Democratic members of the commission used the process to make a political statement rather than a serious policy discussion.

“The fact remains that we cannot have a conversation about how much more money some parties want to spend outside of the normal budget negotiation process,” Martin said. “Setting arbitrary benchmarks without any regard to the taxpayers’ ability to pay is disrespectful to hardworking citizens of this Commonwealth.”

competing report authored by the Republicans on the commission was not adopted, following  a 6-6 vote along party lines, with the executive branch members of the commission abstaining.

While both reports agreed on using averages of demographic data to make funding decisions more predictable from year to year, the Republican-backed report lacked changes to the fair funding formula to establish parity between school districts. For that reason, it failed to address the court’s instructions to bring the funding system into constitutional compliance, McInerney of the Education Law Center said. 

“We hope that all of the Republican legislators will talk to their constituents and talk to children who have been impacted by decades of underfunding and they will also ensure that they are doing our constitutional duty,” McInerney said.

Shapiro and lawmakers in the House and Senate will begin budget discussions next month after Shapiro presents his 2024-25 budget proposal. The commission’s report will likely be at the center of negotiations over the education budget.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.