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$5.4 Billion Spending Hike Plan Passed Ed Funding Commission in Party-Line Vote

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 “Charter school costs have exploded [since the reimbursement was repealed].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.”

Republicans disagree.

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.

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Counterpoint: Too Much Parental Involvement Hurts Kids

For an alternate viewpoint, see: Point: Education’s Future Depends on Parent Power

I have been a local school board member since my daughters, now 11th-graders, were in second grade. In that time, I have been involved in education policy discussions at the local, state and national levels on issues related to the rights of LGBTQ+ students, standardized testing and the privatization of public education. The rise of the so-called “parental rights” movement in public education has been one of the thorniest, most perplexing issues I have encountered.

There is no doubt that parents play a crucial role in the education of their children. Who would dare argue that they don’t? But in the face of the anti-Critical Race Theory, anti-LGBTQ+, anti-Social Emotional Learning, anti-Diversity Equity and Inclusion juggernaut unleashed by heavily funded, right-leaning astroturf parent groups such as Moms for Liberty, it has become imperative that we have an honest discussion about how much say parents should have in what is (or is not) taught in our public schools.

My district, unlike many, is racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, with 31 languages spoken in the homes of our students. Educating such a diverse student body presents many challenges and requires a nuanced approach to policy and practice that ensures all students have equal opportunities to learn, thrive and grow. While it is easy for school leaders to say they embrace diversity, equity and inclusion, it’s far too challenging to implement policies promoting those principles.

I have spent my time on the school board helping to develop systems that ensure decisions are made collaboratively and with as many voices at the decision-making table as possible. This means making space not only for administrators, teachers, parents and students but also ensuring that historically marginalized groups are represented.

Decisions that affect students should never be based on the whims of those with the most privilege or power and indeed not on who has the loudest voice in the room.

However, the latter has become the hallmark of parental rights activists. They attend meeting after meeting, berating, shouting down, and even making death threats against school board members. During the pandemic, battles over masks erupted at podiums at far too many school board meetings across the country and quickly morphed into demands to ban books, censor curriculum and muzzle “woke” teachers that parents accused of “grooming” their children.

In the 2022 midterm elections, parental rights activists were on the ballot in numerous states. With the support and endorsement of Moms for Liberty, they ran campaigns to become school board members in districts in red, blue and purple states. Moms for Liberty operates county chapters that aim to serve as watchdogs “over all 13,000 school districts.” Chapters empower parents to “defend their parental rights” and “identify, recruit & train liberty-minded parents to run for school boards.”

The “anti-woke” agenda espoused by Moms for Liberty endorsed school board candidates had the greatest successes in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis proudly declared the state of being “where woke goes to die.” But in many other parts of the country, parental rights candidates lost their elections, with even conservative political operatives acknowledging that many of their campaigns were “too hyperbolic.”

Chaos has already erupted in several districts where they succeeded and won board majorities, with newly formed, inexperienced boards firing superintendents or forcing them to resign. One board voted to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory just hours after being sworn in.

After a decade of experience as a school board member, there’s one thing I can say for sure — the majority of parents, teachers and community members do not respond well to instability and disruption in their local public schools. When school boards run amok and rash decisions make headlines, communities work quickly to restore calm. If parental rights school board majorities continue to govern recklessly, they will undoubtedly face a backlash from voters.

Creating and implementing sound school policies and practices that respect and affirm all students requires collaboration. It does not allow for the divisive, polarizing rhetoric and impetuous, rash decision-making that have become the calling cards of the so-called parental rights movement.