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Pa.’s poorest school districts will get more money next year. Public education advocates say the budget still falls short.

The $300 million increase for K-12 schools marks the largest increase in the state’s main education subsidy under Gov. Tom Wolf. Republicans warn against overspending the state surplus.

Gov. Tom Wolf at a press conference at the Delaware County Courthouse in Media on June 17.
Gov. Tom Wolf at a press conference at the Delaware County Courthouse in Media on June 17.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

The Upper Darby School District is poised to receive an additional $4.8 million from Pennsylvania this coming school year, a big boost for the Delaware County district, one of the state’s poorest.

Still, Superintendent Dan McGarry says the infusion, negotiated in the new state budget deal, isn’t going to reverse Upper Darby’s fortunes. The district has been struggling to cover rising costs even while raising taxes and tapped more than $6 million from its reserves to cover next year’s $227 million budget.

So rather than hiring what McGarry sees as much-needed staff — such as reading specialists and guidance counselors — Upper Darby will likely use the extra funding to offset existing costs.

“Don’t get me wrong, we appreciate it,” McGarry said Monday. But “obviously, we were hoping for more.”

The $300 million increase for K-12 schools passed Friday by Pennsylvania lawmakers marks the largest increase in the state’s main education subsidy during Gov. Tom Wolf’s tenure — and, coupled with other programs, the largest education spending increase ever, according to the governor’s office.

It also sets aside money for Pennsylvania’s 100 poorest school districts. The provision followed a campaign to ramp up investment in the neediest communities — a goal of Pennsylvania’s school-funding formula, but one slow to be realized.

But public education advocates say the deal falls short. Wolf had pushed for an increase four times larger — $1.3 billion — and a more sweeping approach to narrowing gaps between wealthier and poorer districts. With Pennsylvania closing its fiscal year with a $3 billion surplus, advocates say Republican lawmakers could have adopted the Democratic governor’s proposal without needing to raise taxes.

“Committing only $300 million is definitely a huge missed opportunity,” said Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, which is representing plaintiffs in a landmark case challenging Pennsylvania’s school-funding system that is scheduled to go to trial this fall.

Donna Cooper, executive director of the nonprofit Public Citizens for Children and Youth, said the state “had the opportunity to make a very dramatic impact on school funding inequity. More than anything, partisan politics caused lawmakers to be unwilling to reach an agreement to do that.”

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania schools need an additional $4.6 billion to close education gaps, new analysis finds

Republicans, who control the legislature, prefer putting most of the surplus into savings, warning the state risked a future deficit if it overspent now.

Responding to criticism that lawmakers should have spent more on schools, a spokesperson for House Republicans described the budget package as a “historic” investment in K-12 education and noted the plan was supported by Wolf.

“This incredible level of state spending on education is in addition to the billions of dollars Pennsylvania schools received directly from the federal American Rescue Plan and is also on top of local school district taxes paid directly by school district residents,” said the spokesperson, Jason Gottesman.

School districts point out the federal relief is one-time money, meant to counter “learning loss” and other pandemic impacts. They say recurring state funding is needed to address longer-term rising costs, in particular pensions, special education, and charter schools — the latter of which Wolf pushed to address this year. But the budget deal didn’t include the cost-cutting measures he sought, which charter advocates said would have meant deep cuts for their schools.

And this year’s state funding increase — which comes after no increase last year — doesn’t cover the growth in school district costs. The tuition that districts paid for students to attend charter schools, for instance, was expected to grow by more than $450 million this past year, said Andrew Armagost of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.

» READ MORE: Billions of stimulus dollars are coming to Pa. and N.J. schools to help get them open again

Still, advocates for greater spending see the focus on the poorest of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts as a bright spot. Of the $300 million increase in state aid, $100 million is set aside for the 100 with the fewest resources — a new approach compared with past budgets.

Among the expected beneficiaries of the so-called “Level Up” money is Philadelphia, which is slated to get an additional $66 million, or a close to 6% increase in state aid, according to calculations by House Democrats. The district’s chief financial officer, Uri Monson, noted the boost “still falls well short of the equitable distribution of all state funds through the fair funding formula.”

While the state’s school-funding formula directs more money to districts with higher levels of poverty, among other needs, it only applies to new state spending since 2016 — meaning it has yet to dramatically reshape school funding.

“It is the lowest-spending districts with the most poor kids. How can you be against it?” asked Cooper, whose organization was part of a coalition that pushed the “Level Up” campaign. Also getting extra funds are other area districts including Norristown, Bristol Borough, Coatesville, Pottstown, Chester-Upland, and school systems in midsize cities such as Reading and Allentown.

Cooper and other advocates see the agreement to target money to 100 districts as an acknowledgment that the poorest need more state resources — an argument at the heart of the case challenging Pennsylvania’s school-funding system. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit argue the system is both inadequate and inequitable, and that an additional $4.6 billion is required to close educational and spending gaps between wealthy and poor districts. Republican leaders and other critics dispute those claims.

Steve Bloom, vice president of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, said it was disappointing to see “such a substantial increase” in funding for school districts in the budget, compared with a $40 million increase in state tax credits for businesses that donate to private school scholarships.

The tax credit program is championed by school choice advocates as giving a financial break to families looking for an alternative to public schools. Republican lawmakers had proposed a $160 million expansion of that program and automatic future increases — a plan vehemently opposed by public school supporters who said it would drain school systems.

An additional 13,000 students will be able to receive scholarships under the increase, but “there was an opportunity … that was missed” to serve thousands of more students whose families have sought the assistance, Bloom said. He said “piling on additional millions” to district schools wouldn’t solve their problems.

For the William Penn School District, one of the 100 districts receiving a boost in aid and a plaintiff in the school-funding lawsuit, its projected $1.7 million increase from the state “is definitely a help,” said Superintendent Eric Becoats. But “we still have to look at the other needs we have in our schools.” The Delaware County district, which has a budget of $103 million, doesn’t have a social worker in every school and lacks staff to help support elementary teachers in classrooms averaging 26 students.

“There’s still a significant gap,” Becoats said.

McGarry, of Upper Darby, said his district has been struggling to just maintain its current programs. To critics of expanding funding, he pointed to wealthier communities that can raise more tax revenue and spend more on their schools.

“You can’t argue that‘s not a benefit to your school and community,” he said.

Staff writer Kristen A. Graham contributed to this article.