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Shapiro proposes ‘historic’ $1 billion increase in education funding to address inequities

Gov. Josh Shapiro delivers his budget address for the 2024-25 fiscal year to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate in the Rotunda of the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2024.
Matt Rourke
Gov. Josh Shapiro delivers his budget address for the 2024-25 fiscal year to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate in the Rotunda of the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2024.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro proposed increasing Pennsylvania’s education funding by more than $1 billion this year, in what he calls the largest single year increase ever.

Most of the funding, $872 million, will go toward addressing the problem of some districts having “inadequate” and “inequitable” funding to provide a basic education, as determined by a Commonwealth Court ruling 364 days ago. Another $200 million would go to schools through the current basic education funding formula. The $1 billion increase builds upon an increase of nearly $600 million last year.

“No one here should be OK with an unconstitutional education system for our kids,” Shapiro said.

Although the budget increase falls short of the $6.2 billion that experts witnesses in the Commonwealth court case said would bring education funding up to its legally required level — the increase would put Pennsylvania roughly on pace to increase funding by $5.1 billion over seven years, a recommended timetable laid out in a report earlier this year by the Basic Education Funding Commission. Shapiro said his budget “followed the general contours” of that report.

"Our challenges around education aren't going to be solved in one budget cycle," Shapiro said. "We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to do right by our students. Let us seize this moment."

Republicans were already beginning to push back on Shapiro’s proposals Tuesday, calling the 7 percent increase “unsustainable.” Sen. Camera Bartolotta said the $3.2 billion increase in spending would lead to deficits in the near future without clarifying how the increases would be paid for in the future.

“I am a strong supporter of public education and voted for the historic investments we made already,” Bartolotta said in a statement. “However, reforms that we advance in education, including increased funding, must improve student achievement and respect the taxpayers who foot the bill.”

Education advocates immediately began to champion Shapiro’s budget and call for locking in increases into the future. “This is a public education budget worth fighting for,” according to a press release from PA Schools Work, a group of 17 organizations that advocate for increased education funding. The group called on the Pennsylvania legislature to lock in the next six years of education funding increases proposed by the Basic Education Funding Commission.

Under the commission’s proposal, funding would go to districts based on a three year average of its enrollment, weighted by factors like the number of students in poverty, English language learners and the number of students in charter schools. And it also takes into account how wealthy the district’s residents are and their ability to pay for the schools on their own.

The report said this additional funding would likely go disproportionately to districts with the greatest financial need, which in Allegheny County would mean an additional $3 million to $5 million next year to districts like Mckeesport, Sto-Rox, Penn Hills, Baldwin-Whitehall and Woodland Hills. Most other school districts would see six figure or low seven figure increases.

Nine county school districts would see no increase in funding from the additional “adequacy spending”, including Pittsburgh Public Schools — which already has one of the largest per-pupil expenditures in the state. But even these districts would see modest increases in funding through the budget’s proposed $200 million in basic education formula funding — the largest increase by far going to Pittsburgh Public Schools, at $2.3 million.

Additional funding details

Shapiro’s proposed budget would also cap spending on cyber charter schools at $8,000 per student, a level more in line with the actual cost of providing those services, according to prepared budget documents. Right now cyber schools charge between $8,639 and $26,564 per student per year. This will save school districts more than $267 million, according to Shapiro.

The budget materials Shapiro provided prior to his speech didn’t mention anything about private school vouchers. Shapiro has supported them in the past and they’re broadly popular among Republican legislators but are opposed by House Democrats. But Shapiro did briefly mention that he continues to support vouchers in his speech.

He said he supported “scholarships that let poor families in struggling school districts put their kids in the best position for them to succeed – whether that’s paying for extra tutoring, books and computers, or yes, going to another school,” he said. “The Senate passed a proposal last year that included important elements of that, and it’s something I support and consider to be unfinished business.”

The budget includes additional funding for special education ($50 million), student mental health services ($100 million), school safety ($50 million) and building improvements ($300 million). Shapiro called out the Sto Rox School District for having $14 million in needed school building improvements.

It also includes $10 million to address teacher shortages and $5 million in professional development funding.

“Schools across the Commonwealth face critical staff shortages, particularly among those serving the highest proportions of low-income students and students of color,” according to supporting documents in Shapiro’s budget proposal.

In total, $19.1 billion in education funding would be allotted for 2024-2025 — about 44% of the total budget.

Shapiro said in his prepared remarks that now is the time to invest some of the $14 billion of budget surpluses “squirreled away here in Harrisburg.” Shapiro tried to preempt arguments against spending additional money by saying that some ratings agencies say the commonwealth is saving too much money right now. The budget proposal, he said, would leave an $11 billion surplus without raising taxes.

“We’re facing real challenges in education and with our workforce that will hold us back in the future if we don’t take action right now,” he said.

Shapiro’s budget also includes funding for issues that impact students, such as workforce development programs, additional money to address food insecurity and funding to reduce gun violence.

But the budget proposal doesn’t include funding to expand a free breakfast program for all students to include free lunches. “It’s disheartening,” said Melissa Frohlich Green, the public communications chair for the School Nutrition Association of Pennsylvania. But she promised to continue working with Shapiro and the state legislature to make it happen.

The budget proposal includes additional funding for students in pre-K before they enter public schools as well as additional funding for the state’s higher education system, after they graduate high school. One of the biggest proposals would combine the state’s university system and its community colleges into a single administrative body and cap tuition for middle income students at $1,000 in tuition and fees per semester.

This will “ensure that Pennsylvanians receive a great education, from Pre-K through an apprenticeship program all the way to college graduation,” Shapiro said.

90.5 WESA's Jillian Forstadt contributed reporting.
Copyright 2024 90.5 WESA. To see more, visit 90.5 WESA.

Oliver Morrison