Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
January 24, 2024
A conservative Pennsylvania policy group said expanded educational choice should be part of the mix of options to improve access to quality education as Gov. Josh Shapiro and lawmakers respond to a court ruling on educational equality in the next state budget.
Nathan Benefield, senior vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, said in a call with reporters on Wednesday that while Shapiro has remained committed to the taxpayer-funded private school scholarship program he touted during his campaign, Benefield would like to see it completed as part of the 2024-25 budget.
“We’re looking to see what he proposes in this budget for school choice,” Benefield said. “Traditionally, school choice programs have a fiscal benefit to the state, drawing far less per student and representing but a small fraction of what we spend on education.”
Shapiro is due to give his second budget address on Feb. 6. It will follow the first budget cycle of his administration, when negotiations were derailed for months after a deal with Senate Republicans to include a $100 million lifeline scholarship program fell apart.
The Pennsylvania Award for Student Success program would have targeted students in the bottom 15% of the state’s school districts, expanding the funding available to give families alternatives to failing public schools.
In a compromise when budget negotiations were finalized in December, lawmakers agreed to a $150 million increase to the state’s Educational Investment Tax Credit and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit programs. Those redirect tax dollars in the form of corporate tax credits to private scholarship organizations, although only a fraction of the money available is earmarked for students in poorly performing schools.
Complicating the education part of the budget is the state court mandate to close the funding gap between Pennsylvania’s wealthiest and poorest school districts. Commonwealth Court President Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer ruled last February that the state’s reliance on property tax to fund education puts students in less wealthy school districts at a disadvantage.
A bipartisan commission that heard testimony from teachers, students and other stakeholders across the state last year adopted a proposal this month to put all school districts on an equal footing within seven years. The proposal includes spending $5.4 billion to close the gap between the state’s most successful districts and those that lag behind plus another $4.2 billion in annual increases for basic education, building maintenance and tax relief for the most heavily taxed districts.
Benefield said Wednesday that the Commonwealth Foundation recommended to the Basic Education Funding Commission that the court order could be satisfied by channeling more of what the state currently spends on education through the fair funding formula the state adopted in 2015.
Currently only about 25% of the state’s education budget is allocated to districts using the formula. The remainder is distributed as a baseline amount to each district under a policy called “hold harmless” that prevents reductions in funding regardless of changes in student populations.
Shapiro has said he remains committed to the scholarship plan he touted on the campaign trail, but to bring it home he will have to broker an agreement between Senate Republicans who supported it last year and House Democrats, who killed legislation supporting it.
In a question-and-answer session at the Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon on Monday, the House Democrats’ chief budget negotiator said he believes that quality education includes every opportunity available to Pennsylvania families, including private education.
While private school vouchers, charter schools and cyber schools are all due for reevaluation, House Appropriations Committee Chairperson Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) said achieving funding equality in traditional public schools must be a priority.
Harris’ counterpart in the Republican House minority, Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), said in a statement that the priority for the coming budget cycle must be to control spending to address a $1.83 billion structural deficit representing the gap between the authorized $45 billion in spending in the current budget and the $43 billion in revenue the state is expected to bring in.
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