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Pennsylvania’s budget increases education spending by $850 million


The Pennsylvania General Assembly approved a $45.8 billion budget that includes an $850 million increase in education spending, a historic increase in school funding.

In a budget deal passed by lawmakers on Friday, basic education funding for school districts — the main source of state K-12 aid — would increase by $525 million. Level Up funding, which goes to the state’s 100 poorest school districts, including Philadelphia, will increase by $225 million, and there will also be a $100 million increase for special education. Combined funding for basic education and advanced education districts will increase from $7.1 billion to $7.8 billion, or about 8%.

Legislative leaders hailed the 2022-23 budget as a major commitment to schools, and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s office said he would sign it. Wolfe originally proposed to increase education aid by nearly double what was eventually passed.

“This is a comprehensive budget that puts the needs of the people before the needs of the government,” said Republican Rep. Stan Saylor, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

But supporters said that while the deal would help many districts and students, the increased aid would do little to fix the state’s systemic inequity in education funding, which is now the subject of a landmark lawsuit. Some observers also noted that the 8 percent increase in education is barely keeping up with record inflation.

As the state’s largest district, Philadelphia will receive about $93 million in additional basic education, $84 million in post-secondary education and $12.6 million in special education increases.

New Philadelphia Superintendent Tony Watlington Sr. praised Wolff and lawmakers and called the budget “a step in the right direction.” But while the increase in state funding for city schools (about $200 million in total) will be significant, the district’s chief financial officer, Uri Monson, said it will be a smaller increase than district officials anticipated.

That gap between expectations and the budget deal won’t have much impact on the fiscal year 2023 budget, but will require adjustments to the county’s five-year plan, he said, primarily because the county will eventually use federal COVID aid. Monson said he was particularly disappointed that lawmakers decided to put more than $2 billion into the state’s rainy day fund for budget emergencies.

“It may not be raining financially, but it’s raining right now because of what districts are doing to help students recover from the pandemic,” he said. “It’s a shame that they invested three times more money in the future than in the current needs of the students.”

For Philadelphia, that could mean cutting additional counselors and other staff brought in after the pandemic, he said.

From a statewide perspective, the deal highlights, but does not address, a fundamental unfairness of the current K-12 funding system, said Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center, which is helping to represent plaintiff districts in ongoing litigation challenging the system’s legality.

“The significant increase in education funding in this budget deal shows that many in Harrisburg recognize the depth of the hole our legislative leaders have dug for our students,” McInerney said. “But that’s not enough to fulfill the state legislature’s constitutional duty to fix our inadequate two-tier school funding system.”

Superintendents and other educators detailed the enormous, unmet need in low-income neighborhoods during a a four-month probationary period on the public funding system in Commonwealth Court, which ended in March. However, it could be some time before Judge René Jubelirer issues a ruling, which the losing side will likely appeal.

In that case Monson testified that as the state’s largest district, Philadelphia receives a huge share of total aid, but still receives a relatively low amount from the state on a per-student basis.

The city ranks lowest among the state’s 500 school districts in how much it spends per “weighted” student, a formula that takes into account not only overall enrollment but also the concentration of low-income and high-need students, Monson said.

With a poverty rate of 24%, Philadelphia is the poorest large city in America.

Friday’s budget deal also includes a $125 million, or 45%, cap increase for a state program that gives tax breaks to corporations that guarantee scholarships for students to attend private schools. Republican state lawmakers are the main proponents of these higher education tax credit scholarships, but critics call them vouchers in disguise.

The budget does not include provisions sponsored by two Democratic lawmakers from Philadelphia, Sen. Vince Hughes and Rep. Liz Fiedler, that would have allocated $800 million to upgrade aging school facilities.

Lawmakers also rejected changes to the charter school reimbursement formula that would have saved Philadelphia County more than $145 million.

Dale Mezacapa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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