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State commission recommends lawmakers adopt a $5.4B plan to revamp Pa.’s education system

An empty elementary school classroom with desks and bookshelves.
Brittainy Newman
The plan lawmakers voted for proposes that taxpayers come up with $291 million in funding, while the remaining $5.1 billion rests upon the state. It also suggests that the state invest an additional $955 million “tax equity supplement” to support school districts where residents do not have the capacity to make up gaps through tax increases.

Lawmakers want to invest more than $5 billion in additional state education funding into local school districts to address persistent equity gaps, according to a 114-page report adopted Thursday by the state’s Basic Education Funding Commission.

The 15-member commission voted 8-7 to adopt the plan, introduced by Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster. The proposal sets a seven-year timeline for distributing $5.4 billion in education funding, the responsibility for which would be split between local taxpayers and the state.

“Regardless of a state and local share, a $5.4 billion gap is a large figure,” the commission wrote. “It is nearly 18% of school districts’ 2021/22 current expenditures. However, it is large because it is a comprehensive solution to a large problem.”

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Lawmakers began rewriting the state’s school funding model in the wake of a Commonwealth Court ruling last February that deemed the current system inequitable.

“The state and local share of adequacy gaps acknowledges this reality by putting most of the onus on the state instead of overburdening local communities,” the report continues. “Notably, the local share is not intended as a mandate for local school districts to raise taxes, but rather an equity component in the system of public education funding that local school districts can choose to meet.”

The adopted plan proposes that taxpayers come up with $291 million in funding, while the remaining $5.1 billion rests upon the state. It also suggests that the state invest an additional $955 million “tax equity supplement” to support school districts where residents do not have the capacity to make up gaps through tax increases.

The adopted report is the culmination of 14 public hearings the commission held across the state, in addition to receiving more than 1,100 comments online.

Whether the commission’s recommendations will make it into Gov. Josh Shapiro’s budget address next month, however, is unclear. Just how much of the plan is realized will be left up to state budget negotiations in the upcoming months.

The vote was supported primarily along party lines, with the majority of Democrats, as well as Shapiro’s appointees, voting for Sturla’s plan while Republicans voted in favor of a plan introduced by Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill.

The outlier was Democratic state Sen. Lindsey Williams, who voted no on both plans, stating an aggressive timeline for fixing the state’s school funding gaps was needed.

“This is our opportunity to get this right,” Williams said. “If we're not voting on a bipartisan report today, I see little reason to compromise at this point.”

She added later in a statement that the partisan report risks setting the ceiling for negotiations.

Funding ‘adequacy targets’ would help districts reach state measures of success

The commission’s adopted recommendations also fell about a billion dollars short of proposals from education advocates.

In a letter to the governor last month, a coalition of attorneys and education advocates known as PA Schools Work urged the state to funnel $6.2 billion into the school funding budget in order to comprehensively address equity gaps.

The adopted model, however, does set adequacy targets similar to what the group recommended in their letter.

The report’s recommendations suggest doing so by determining how much money a school district would require to meet Pennsylvania’s existing benchmarks for student success, such as standardized test scores, high school graduation rates and indicators of college readiness.

Per the report, the median amount spent by school districts that meet these measures is around $13,700 per student. To account for the needs of different student populations — including districts with a high proportion of English language learners and students living in poverty — that figure is then multiplied by different weights.

The resulting number determines just how much state funding is needed, per weighted student, to ensure the district has the adequate resources to meet its students’ needs. The report found that, out of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts, 77% have what advocates call an “adequacy gap” because they spend below that $13,700 per student figure.

“Adopting those adequacy targets is a paradigm shift for Pennsylvania. Rather than looking at how much money comes in and doling it out based on how much comes in,” said Maura McInerney, legal director at the Education Law Center. “We are looking at what children need to learn, and that's exactly why our school funding system was declared unconstitutional because, in fact, we weren't doing that.”

If the legislature and governor were to sign off on the plan as written, school districts in Allegheny County would receive as much as $27 million in additional education funding over the next seven years.

Under the current proposal, McKeesport, Penn Hills and Woodland Hills school districts would each receive an increase in yearly education funding of at least $4 million.

“We don't think the report is perfect and there are some unaddressed issues, but the vision it lays out for the Commonwealth is a transformative one,” said Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, senior attorney for the Public Interest Law Center.

Other recommendations highlighted in the report include funding for school facilities improvements, a reexamination of the way charter schools in the state are funded, and additional funding for teacher recruitment and support.

Urevick-Ackelsberg, who also served as one of the attorneys representing school districts in the Commonwealth Court case, stressed that the majority of funding for these efforts must come from the state.

In response to the commission’s vote, Shapiro said that the adopted report reflects “a number” of his priorities.

“I look forward to addressing these points when I deliver my budget to the Legislature in a few weeks, and to continue working with leaders in both parties in order to deliver a thorough and efficient public education for students across our Commonwealth,” the governor said

Updated: January 11, 2024 at 6:19 PM EST
This story was updated with additional information about and reactions to Thursday's vote.
Corrected: January 11, 2024 at 3:46 PM EST
This story has been updated to correct the title of state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill.
Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.