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BLOOM: House Democrats Need to Get Back to Work

Pennsylvania House Democrats have been acting busy during the state budget impasse—an impasse their own majority leader, Rep. Matt Bradford, inexplicably denied existed in the first place—by taking a dog-and-pony show on the road. In an awkward display of performative politics, House Democrats orchestrated several rallies across the state to “sound an SOS on education to Save Our Schools.”

Note they didn’t name their rallies “Save Our Students.” Instead of addressing the urgent need for improved instruction to fix abysmal proficiency rates for kids in failing schools, House Democrats focused primarily on buildings and facilities. During one rally in front of South Philadelphia High School, state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler lamented about a 70-year-old plumbing system and a 30-year-old boiler.

The message of this rally was particularly confusing. Rally speakers demanded increased school funding. But that’s precisely what is already in the bipartisan general appropriations bill recently signed by Gov. Josh Shapiro. This budget outline provides more than $700 million in additional funding for public schools—an 8 percent increase from last year’s appropriation. The clamoring to reverse “decades of disinvestment” while celebrating record increases is reminiscent of the car-chasing dog not knowing what to do with it once caught.

During the rally, Bradford (D-Cedars) ridiculed Lifeline Scholarships, referred to as the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) Program in the 2023–24 budget. This program would provide $100 million of added funding to students in Pennsylvania’s lowest-performing schools. Bradford’s fierce opposition to Lifeline Scholarships/PASS pushed Shapiro to line-item veto his campaign promise to the commonwealth’s most underserved kids.

And as a bizarre token of gratitude to Shapiro, Bradford mocked him.

“Recently, it’s become the cool thing to say ‘every child of God,’” said Bradford, quoting Shapiro’s now-infamous words from his Fox News appearance in June.

With a majority caucus like this, does Shapiro need enemies?

And while slamming Lifeline Scholarships/PASS, Bradford inadvertently admitted that countless students are trapped in Pennsylvania’s failing education system.

“When they take out the 1 percent of kids out of schools like this, what are they going to do with the 99 percent of kids that are going to be left behind in these buildings?” Bradford asked.

A quick recommendation for Bradford: If you don’t want people to think the system traps students in failing schools, don’t admit they are being “left behind.”

It would also behoove Bradford to avoid admitting he has unfinished work.

“When they say they’re worried about kids—mostly kids of color—in schools that are underfunded, I say let’s have that conversation now and once and for all,” said Bradford. “It’s long overdue.”

Bradford is right: This conversation is overdue—and so is the budget, which was supposed to be finalized by June 30th. Though Shapiro signed the appropriations, the fiscal code bills, which direct how to implement the appropriations, remain under intense negotiation, with Lifeline Scholarships/PASS still in the mix.

If House Democrats are committed to further funding, they are going about it terribly. Without the fiscal code bills, more than $1 billion in public funds remain in limbo. In addition to increased public school funding, these lingering commitments include funding teacher stipends and student mental health. You’d think those would be more pressing priorities than boilers and plumbing.

Instead, House Democrats are busing themselves around the commonwealth when they should be in Harrisburg to end the budget impasse.

Bradford saying “let’s have that conversation now” is an outright bluff. He and House Democrats won’t have any such conversations—at least not substantive ones—for at least another month. House Democratic leadership will not reconvene the House until late September when they can fill the vacancy left by former state Rep. Sara Innamorato’s departure and regain their one-seat majority. House Democrats are only “glad to have that conversation” when they are free from the “burden” of good-faith, bipartisan conversations with their colleagues across the aisle.

Instead of this traveling roadshow, Bradford and House Democrats need to call the House into session to negotiate the final components of the state budget and end the impasse. And instead of worrying about school boilers and rusty pipes, they probably need to worry more about saving our students—especially those “left behind.”