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Shapiro school voucher stance in budget spotlight

Plus, NAACP study flags police oversight gaps.

This is The Investigator, a free weekly newsletter with the top news from across Pennsylvania.
A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

February 1, 2024 | spotlightpa.org
Use of force, funding transit, abortion ruling, voter-focused, corruption panel, budget address, Bayer billions, and PASSHE chemical costs.

The Bucks County NAACP released the results of a three-year study of local police today. Danielle Ohl reports it found gaps in how police track complaints against officers, traffic stops, and use of force.

Also this week, Stephen Caruso reports shrinking ridership and declining federal dollars have Gov. Josh Shapiro pushing for more state money for public transit. But the GOP-controlled state Senate isn't convinced. 

Finally, Caruso and Katie Meyer explain the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that ordered a lower court to reconsider a case determining whether Medicaid must cover abortions here. A majority of the justices agreed the state constitution "strongly" protects against sex-based discrimination, which Commonwealth Court will now have to consider in its own ruling.

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What to expect from Gov. Shapiro’s budget address

Pitches to restructure Pennsylvania’s higher education system and boost public transit funding are expected to be centerpieces of Gov. Josh Shapiro’s upcoming Feb. 6 budget address. 

But while the Democrat has already released overviews of some of those plans, his formal address will bring many more details. It will also confirm Shapiro’s priorities on a raft of other issues, including whether he’ll keep supporting politically contentious school choice vouchers. 

Shapiro’s proposals will require the approval of both state Senate Republicans and House Democrats, who lead their respective chambers. Last year, that negotiation process led to a monthslong impasse.

The address kicks off legislative talks. Here’s what to watch for. 

K-12 public school funding and vouchers

Since Commonwealth Court declared last year that Pennsylvania’s basic education funding plan is unconstitutionally inequitable, education has become an automatic plank of any state budget. 

Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature have proposed two different plans to restructure it. They agree that more funding is necessary, and that Pennsylvania must protect poorer districts from year-to-year fluctuations in state resources. However, Democrats on a commission tasked with studying the issue estimated a $5.4 billion price tag in their final report, whereas Republicans did not include a specific dollar amount. 

Notably, the Republican report included an appropriation for a school voucher program that Shapiro has publicly supported. 

Conflict over this program blew up budget negotiations last year. As Shapiro attempts to chart a path forward for education policy through the Democratic-controlled state House and Republican state Senate, his stance on vouchers, which route public money to private schools, will be in the spotlight. 

PASSHE restructuring

Pennsylvania spends less on higher education than almost any other state, and the governor’s office says tuition at the commonwealth’s system of 10 publicly funded universities, known as PASSHE, has skyrocketed as a result.  

His proposed overhaul to the system would group those 10 PASSHE schools with Pennsylvania’s 15 public community colleges under a new system of governance.

The plan would also cap tuition for these state-owned universities and community colleges at $1,000 per semester for students from median-income families, and it would end a requirement that funding for four state-related universities, Lincoln University, Penn State, Pitt, and Temple, be approved by two-thirds of the General Assembly — a growing legislative challenge. 

Funding details for the plan are not yet available, but Shapiro is expected to unveil them next week. 

Public transit 

Ahead of his budget address, Shapiro also announced that he would propose a $1.5 billion increase in state funding for public transit, which would mean nearly $283 million for the next fiscal year. 

The funding would come from an increase in the amount of the state’s sales tax revenue that is dedicated to transit. 

It would mark the largest increase in state funding for public transportation in a decade, and comes as transit systems around the commonwealth warn that they are approaching a fiscal cliff as federal stimulus dollars dwindle. 

Like most of Shapiro’s big proposals, this one could face political headwinds. In particular, Republican leaders in the state Senate have indicated that they consider funding contingent on their existing effort to question the policies and authority of progressive Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. 

Kate Huangpu, Spotlight PA government reporter
🤔 NEXT QUESTION: Are you on top of the news? Prove it with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: budget season, abortion ruling, election plans, and 2024’s river of the year.
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