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Lawmakers grapple with fixing Pa.’s unconstitutional school funding system

by Stephen Caruso, Kate Huangpu, and Katie Meyer of Spotlight PA |

The exterior of the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.
Amanda Berg / For Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — Months after a landmark court decision found Pennsylvania's public school funding system unconstitutional, a commission tasked with resolving statewide disparities held its first series of hearings this week.

The hearings kick off a process that could affect generations of students. But lawmakers said they're still far apart on bedrock issues, like how much additional cash they'll need to pump into the system.

School superintendents, union leaders, and education experts spoke to the lawmakers who make up the 15-member Basic Education Funding Commission about a range of issues. The state of school facilities, student mental health, and labor conditions all came up repeatedly during the three detailed meetings in Allentown, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia.

Lawmakers said they tried to enter the discussions with open minds. They will hold more hearings across the commonwealth over the next two months, and plan to release a report on their discussions by the end of November.

“In order for this commission to be effective, we cannot have a preconceived idea or notion of where this commission will go or what its outcome will be,” said state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R., York) who co-chairs the commission. “We may like what we hear, we may not like what we hear.”

A $6.2 billion question

Lawmakers are approaching the issue from the ground floor, beginning with the basic question of how much money they’ll need to spend in order to satisfy the court’s order, and where it will come from.

“I don’t know,” said state Sen. Dave Argall (R., Schuylkill), who serves as majority chair of his chamber’s education committee, when asked how the funding talks were developing. “I just know that when the court case was resolved, there were many legislators who congratulated the court on its findings. But none of them ran up to the attic to the Legislative Reference Bureau to file a bill for a $6 billion tax increase.”

That $6 billion number came up at the commission’s first meeting in Allentown. The centerpiece of that hearing was testimony from school funding scholar Matthew Kelly of Penn State, who served as an expert witness during the funding lawsuit and this week presented new research that estimates exactly how much more money the commonwealth’s schools need.

Kelly determined funding shortfalls by comparing district-by-district finances to spending, relative to students’ needs, in districts that are considered successful.

He told lawmakers that statewide, the funding shortfall is $6.2 billion — or about 20% of Pennsylvania’s total education spending — and that this insufficiency is concentrated in the commonwealth’s poorest districts, which serve about 20% of its overall students.

“These funding gaps do not impact all student populations equally,” Kelly wrote in the testimony he submitted to lawmakers, noting Black and Latino students are disproportionately affected.

Lawmakers haven’t yet committed to allocating that kind of revenue to schools — a political state of affairs that was also apparent in this year’s state budget process.

Pennsylvania’s most recent budget, which is still missing parts of its enabling legislation, allocates $7.8 billion to K-12 education. Of that, only money invested since 2016, approximately 25%, gets sent to school districts using a new formula that considers factors like how many students are learning English or experiencing poverty when doling out cash.

The rest, approximately $5.8 billion, gets divided up using a formula that mostly relies on population data that are 30 years old.

And even though the state has taken advantage of a recent surplus to boost education spending, lawmakers like state House Education Committee Majority Chair Pete Schweyer (D., Lehigh) pointed out that other programs that helped school districts were simultaneously slashed.

For instance, the same year lawmakers agreed to the updated funding formula, they also ended $300 million in annual funding to reimburse school districts for construction and renovation projects.

“Before we continue down this conversation of ‘historic funding, historic funding, historic funding’ let’s look at history just a little bit closer and understand we’re playing catch-up on a decade-plus, if not longer, of education cuts,” Schweyer said at Wednesday’s hearing in Harrisburg.

After Wednesday’s meeting, Schweyer told Spotlight PA he is optimistic that Republicans will come around to spending more money on education.

“I just think it’s going to take a little time for them to get to that point, and they're allowed to ask the questions that they need to to feel comfortable with the analysis and how [researchers] got to that number,” he said.

Argall, meanwhile, was still pondering where the money would come from. The senator has lobbied for years to reduce the local property taxes that make up the majority of school districts’ budgets. In his ideal world, part of the education funding solution would include the state doing away with these taxes completely and replacing the revenue with a statewide sales or income tax increase.

“It should at least be part of the discussion,” he said.

‘A good start’

The advocates who filed the original lawsuit also testified at this week’s hearings, urging lawmakers to focus on the importance of paying for updated school facilities and programs like pre-K and early education.

“It’s a good start,” Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, who represented the Public Interest Law Center before the state Supreme Court during the school funding case, told Spotlight PA after Wednesday’s hearing. “A lot of good issues are being raised but the most important thing will be how they filter these [ideas.]”

Susan Spicka, executive director of advocacy group Education Voters of PA, said she feels the commission is generally grappling with the most important issues.

“I’m really hoping that it’s soaking in, in these underfunded districts, these choices are impossible,” Spicka said. “The rubber is gonna hit the road when the commission decides what the end product will be of all these meetings.”

She added that the commission’s report will determine her final thoughts on the lawmakers’ efforts. She hopes they release it in time for Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro to begin implementing their recommendations during his next budget proposal.

Superintendents in a number of the commonwealth’s poorest school districts stressed how their aging school facilities compounded their students’ problems.

Superintendent Carol D. Birks of Allentown called her district “a microcosm” of the infrastructure problem. Of her district’s 21 schools, she told lawmakers, “Two-thirds — think about this — two-thirds are more than 50 years old, with a startling 12 school buildings that have exceeded the century mark.”

“The truth remains,” she continued, “that these aging structures struggle to accommodate the demands of modern 21st-century learning.”

Vouchers still a GOP focus

Legislative Republicans have made clear that they are still prioritizing enacting a plan to use public dollars to fund private school scholarships.

The issue is fraught in Harrisburg. Although $100 million for such a program was included in a budget deal passed by the GOP-controlled state Senate earlier this summer, Shapiro vetoed it amid pressure from organized labor and state House Democrats who didn’t support the provision.

State House Republicans held a meeting Tuesday in Philadelphia on education and heard from parents, students, and officials who support alternatives to public schools.

Jaslin Vasquez-Gonzalez told the panel that after her dad was deported by federal immigration authorities, her mother told her she either had to go to her local public school, which she said had safety issues, or find out how to pay for a private school herself.

Vasquez-Gonzalez said a nun helped her find a scholarship to attend a private Catholic high school for girls in Philadelphia, where she thrived. Now Vazquez-Gonzalez is a student at St. Joseph’s University.

“I was given a chance, I was given an opportunity,” she told lawmakers, “but more simply, I got lucky.”

At the end of the hearing, Republicans remained optimistic that they could still find an opening for the scholarship program.

“I don’t feel like the issue is dead,” said state Rep. Clint Owlett (R., Tioga) and a sponsor of a similar voucher bill last session. “Your advocacy is what is going to take it over the edge.”

Schweyer, meanwhile, said Democrats’ position on vouchers also remains firm.

“My caucus has made it abundantly clear that we're not going to do PASS scholarships,” he said, referring to the name of Republicans’ current voucher proposal. “Certainly, we’re not going to get any scholarships until we reach a level of adequacy and an equity that we feel comfortable [with].”

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