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Pa. House leaders want to codify seven-year funding to fill public school “adequacy gaps”

FILE - The Pennsylvania Capitol stands in Harrisburg, Pa., Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.
Matt Rourke
FILE - The Pennsylvania Capitol stands in Harrisburg, Pa., Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.

Pennsylvania House leaders are planning to introduce legislation intended to close funding gaps between the Commonwealth’s poorest and wealthiest school districts over seven years.

Democrats want to codify the future of supplemental funding for the state’s public schools, rather than subject the money to yearly partisan budget negotiations. Their plan would involve funneling an additional $5.1 billion to 371 school districts facing “adequacy gaps,” as recommended by the state’s Basic Education Funding Commission earlier this year.

“The state must step up and provide adequate funding in a way that makes Pennsylvania’s constitutional promise a reality for all students,” leaders of the House Democratic caucus said Tuesday in a memo circulated to the chamber.

A Commonwealth Court judge last year deemed the current school funding system unconstitutional for failing to provide the resources needed to ensure all students have a “meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and civically.”

Gov. Josh Shapiro’s proposed budget for 2024-25 attempts to remedy the issue through a $1.8 billion increase in funding for public schools. Of that money, close to $900 million is targeted toward the state’s most underfunded schools, and $200 million would be distributed through the fair funding formula benefiting all 500 school districts.

While details have not yet been released, House Democrats say they want to enact legislation that “increases the stability and predictability in PA’s current fair funding formula.” The idea comes directly from the Basic Education Funding Commission 114-page adopted report, which aims to reduce the variability in school funding, among other things.

Tuesday’s memo was signed by the three House Democrats who were part of the bipartisan commission — Rep. Mary Isaacson, Rep. Pete Schweyer and Rep. Mike Sturla — as well as the full roster of House Democratic leadership, including Speaker Joanna McClinton.

The group reiterated the Commonwealth Court’s findings, which summarize how the state’s “overreliance on local property taxes” has resulted in inadequate funding for staffing, curricula and facilities in low-wealth school districts.

At 43%, property taxes make up the largest share of school district funding in Pennsylvania, according to the most recent federal data. That is about seven percentage points higher than the national average.

Meanwhile, the state is the second-largest source of school funding in Pennsylvania, contributing roughly 37% of district funds while the national average for state-share sits at nearly 46%. The Democrats’ legislation would try to account for funding disparities by providing payments to school districts with the highest tax burdens relative to their local resources.

According to the memo, $1 billion would be distributed over seven years to the 169 school districts slated to get a tax equity supplement under Gov. Shapiro’s plan. Democrats say that would help school districts provide property tax relief or mitigate future tax increases.

In Allegheny County, that would include over $10 million for school districts like Penn Hills, South Fayette, West Mifflin and Woodland Hills, spread over seven years.

The Democrats’ legislation would also codify changes to how the state funds cyber charter schools — another part of Gov. Shapiro’s budget proposal. The governor proposed capping the tuition school districts pay cyber charters for each student attending at $8,000.

Current charter tuition rates for online students vary from $8,639 and $26,564 per student per year. If passed, the cap is estimated to save school districts across the Commonwealth hundreds of millions each year, given how enrollment in these schools has ballooned in recent years.

Leaders in both the Republican-controlled state Senate and the Democratic-leaning House have signaled that they are open to changing the way school districts pay cyber charters.

Meanwhile, Republicans are also pushing ahead with efforts to get money for private school vouchers into the state’s 2025 budget. Negotiations on vouchers delayed the last state budget by nearly six months.

Voting along party lines this week, the Senate Education Committee opted to send one proposed school voucher program to the Senate floor.

Known as the “Lifeline Scholarship Program,” if created it would allow some students to receive a scholarship of up to $15,000 to attend a private school.

Shapiro vetoed a prior iteration of the program last year.

Jillian Forstadt