The Democratic majority on an education funding commission is backing an additional $5.4 billion in new taxpayer spending on public schools in Pennsylvania. Republicans and supporters of education reform say taxpayers are already spending record amounts, and it’s time to make real changes.
“Members of the General Assembly will see the report for what it is, just another biased political sideshow rather than a constructive tool to help the General Assembly and the governor reach a rational compromise on the distribution of basic education funding,” Commonwealth Foundation Vice President Stephen Bloom told DVJournal. “The report calls for billions in new spending without accountability or incentives for student performance, ignoring the pressing need for more educational choices for Pennsylvania families.”
Last week the Basic Education Funding Commission (BEFC) voted 8-7 along party lines in favor of a Democratic-backed report calling for at least $200 million each year in new spending “to help school districts with rising costs and inflationary pressures.”
The commission was responding to a Commonwealth Court judge’s ruling last year declaring Pennsylvania’s current education funding system violates the state’s constitution. “Petitioners and students attending low-wealth districts are being deprived of equal protection of law,” Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer ruled.
The commission’s Democratic majority, along with the Shapiro administration, suggested that the current basic education funding mechanism needed readjusting to reduce volatility. Democrats also criticized charter school costs, arguing that taxpayers needed to pay more for them. That would be accomplished through re-establishing the state charter reimbursement – eliminated in 2011 by the state legislature.
“We consistently heard that we must reduce the financial burdens school districts face from charter schools,” wrote Sens. Vincent J. Hughes (D-Philadelphia) and Nick Miller (D-Allentown). Both served as Senate representatives on the BEFC panel. “Charter school costs have exploded [since the reimbursement was repealed]. We support a significant investment in this area as school district charter school costs hover around $3 billion annually.”
No Republicans voted for the majority report. But that didn’t stop Democrat Gov. Josh Shapiro from praising it as “a reflection of…the consensus across Pennsylvania, and among leaders in both parties.” He said that it provides “a real path forward to deliver a comprehensive solution on K-12 education in Pennsylvania.”
And House Democrats called the majority report a “compromise.”
Rep. Jesse Topper (R-Bedford) scoffed at the $5.4 billion additional demand by the majority. “We recognize the need for change in the way education is funded and, through our report, are making recommendations that address the funding formula,” he said. “What we are not willing to do is to step outside of our mission as a commission and recommend a specific monetary number. That is the purview of the entirety of the General Assembly and the administration.”
Shapiro’s administration did not answer emails from DVJournal on whether he supported tax increases to fund the recommended $5.4 billion Democrats recommend to close the gap between rich and poor districts.
Rather than increased spending, Republicans say their minority report would promote increased accountability.
“Government-run education needs to be accountable to the students and parents who depend on it and to the citizens who pay for it,” said Sen. Greg Rothman (R-Cumberland/Dauphin/Perry). “We need to create opportunities for all students, hold schools accountable for student outcomes and further empower parents in the education of their children.”
And the Commonwealth Foundation decried the majority report as “deeply disappointing.”
“History has shown that continuously pouring more money into the public school system doesn’t improve educational outcomes,” said Commonwealth Foundation Director of Legislative Strategy Kevin Kane. “But it does lead to higher taxes. In fact, the commission’s recommendation to increase government spending by nearly $6 billion would cost Pennsylvania families an additional $2,000 per year. The report is a laundry list of special interest spending proposals, rather than a serious attempt to help Pennsylvania’s students.”
And, Republicans wrote in their minority report that the state already spends $17.8 billion on education, “which represents 40 percent of the state’s General Fund.”
Commonwealth Foundation statistics say that Pennsylvania’s per-pupil spending is $21,263. In a typical classroom of 20 students, that equals $425,260. The Pennsylvania Department of Education said that classroom teachers make an average of $74,723 a year.
That means less than 18 percent of education spending goes to the teachers doing the educating, critics note.
Neither report impressed BEFC member Sen. Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny County) who voted against them both.
“I did not want the public to look at a unanimous Democratic-only report and think that it represents our shared goals for this year’s budget,” she said accusing legislators of talking in circles. “It does not. A unanimous Democratic-only report risks setting the ceiling for negotiations—and this report is closer to my floor.”
Bloom, who formerly represented Cumberland County in the Pennsylvania House, called the BEFC report a missed opportunity.
“[T]he commission had the opportunity to make a positive difference for Pennsylvania students by proposing realistic options for restoring equity to the process of distributing basic education funding…It squandered that opportunity in favor of preserving entrenched unconstitutional inequities,” Bloom said.