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March 03, 2023

To fix public education in Pennsylvania, Democrats propose spending $3.1 billion more

Sen. Vincent Hughes unveiled a plan to cut gaps between rich and poor districts in the aftermath of the state's funding formula being ruled unconstitutional. Gov. Josh Shapiro will make his pitch Tuesday

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PA school funding Kenny Eliason/Unsplash

A school funding plan proposed by Sen. Vincent Hughes would increasing education spending in Pennsylvania by $3.1 billion. The proposal comes after the Commonwealth Court ruled the state's funding formula was unconstitutional.

A group of Democratic lawmakers have proposed a plan that would boost funding for Pennsylvania's public education system by $3.1 billion in the wake of the court ruling that found the state's school funding formula is inadequate and unconstitutional. 

The budget proposal was spearheaded by Sen. Vincent Hughes, who represents portions of Philadelphia and Montgomery County and has long pushed for funding increases. Hughes said the state has enough money to repair an education system that has some of the largest gaps between rich and poor districts. 

"Students in red and blue districts alike have felt the impact of poorly funded – and even toxic — schools, and my proposal is a major step toward restoring Pennsylvania students' constitutional and fundamental right to a quality public education," Hughes said. "We have the money to right this wrong and we are morally obligated to deliver for our children: they've suffered from a broken system for far too long." 

The proposal would utilize $1 billion from the state's "rainy day" fund, which has a balance of $5 billion, to remediate schools with asbestos and lead exposure over the next two years. Hughes noted that the most notable examples of asbestos and lead issues can be found in Philadelphia's public schools, but that schools in McKeesport and Allentown have faced issues with carbon dioxide poisoning and mold. 

Another $750 million would be distributed to districts through the state's current funding formula, bringing the total funneled through that formula to $2.17 billion. 

Pennsylvania's school funding formula already targets money to its needier districts, but that funding only applies to some of its education spending, the Inquirer reported. Hughes' proposal would earmark an additional $400 million to be distributed among the state's 100 neediest districts. 

If Hughes' proposal passes, the School District of Philadelphia would spend an additional $5,000 per student per year, Superintendent Tony B. Watlington told KYW. He said the proposal "would enable our students to have the same opportunities that other students have and would position us to shift the conversation from how to invest in the limited resources." 

The proposal comes just weeks after Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer ruled that Pennsylvania's school funding system was unconstitutional. She found the state's reliance on property values to determine public school funding has deprived poorer communities of opportunities and resources enjoyed by students in more affluent school districts. 

Jubelirer did not specify how lawmakers should fix the problem in her ruling, leaving room for debate how lawmakers' should proceed. 

Gov. Josh Shapiro, who is set to make his first budget address Tuesday, did not immediately respond to PhillyVoice's request for comment on Hughes' proposal. He has said that he's working with his team to review Jubelirer's ruling. 

As attorney general, he filed an amicus brief in support of the school districts that initially sued the state's Department of Education over the state's public education funding. Since then, Shapiro has remained mostly silent on the issue, but Lt. Gov. Austin Davis told the Associated Press that Shapiro will "have a lot to say" about equitable school funding during his address. 

Any plan needs to pass the Democrat-controlled state House and the Republican-controlled state Senate before it Shapiro could sign it into law. Senate Republicans have stated their opposition to the Commonwealth Court ruling, with Rep. Bryan Cutler, leader of the House Republican Caucus, calling it "disappointing, but not surprising." 

Cutler and Kim Ward, the Senate president pro tempore, recently filed a motion preserving the right to appeal the school funding decision, taking issue with more than 100 points made in the initial ruling. 

"This (education ruling) presents us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to evaluate and move forward with education and a clean slate," Ward said during a news conference Wednesday. "Its time for us all to get to work on this — Republicans, Democrats, with the governor, the House, the Senate — to establish a 21st century education framework. It would be better for us to do this together, representing all of our constituents, rather than let this be tied up in the courts for years." 

Under Hughes' proposal, special education would receive an additional $250 million, increasing its total allocation to $540 million. The proposal would use $275 million to restore charter school reimbursements to 499 districts. Another $150 million would be used to expand early childhood education programs, reimbursing providers and opening more slots for child care. 

The proposal would allocate $125 million to grade-level literacy programs, dual enrollment for high school students, family literacy programs and tutoring, STEM and trauma-informed programs. Another $100 million would continue the state's mental health support grants, now in their second year. 

With Pennsylvania schools facing a staffing shortage, $100 million would be allocated to recruit teachers, nurses, bus drivers, librarians and support staff. In July, the Department of Education released a three-year plan to recruit thousands of new teachers by diversifying the workforce and streamlining the certification process.