The Pa. budget includes historic school funding increases, but 1 in 6 districts still won’t keep pace with inflation
While the proposed budget includes more than $700 million in additional money for K-12 schools, it’s less than the surge advocates and Democratic lawmakers had called for.
Pennsylvania public education advocates were still celebrating the apparent death of a school voucher program Thursday — but that didn’t mean the spending plan passed by lawmakers was winning their applause.
While the proposed budget includes more than $700 million in additional money for K-12 schools, it’s less than the surge advocates and Democratic lawmakers had called for in the wake of a landmark court ruling this year finding Pennsylvania’s school funding unconstitutional.
In one in six school districts, increases in basic education funding — the state’s main subsidy to public schools — don’t keep pace with inflation, according to an Inquirer analysis. Most of those districts were already underfunded, which means that the gap between the money they have and the money they need has grown.
Gov. Josh Shapiro’s office said the basic education funding increase was the largest in history, a “significant step” to “ensure every child has access to a quality education.” He has also pledged more significant changes to school funding coming next year.
Here’s what to know about how the plan — which still needs to be signed by lawmakers and Shapiro — is expected to affect public schools:
Inflation means boost gets cut in half
The $44.5 billion spending plan — first approved by the Republican-led Senate last week — includes an additional $714 million in basic education funding and special education funding. That’s 8.4% more than last year’s $8.5 billion appropriation.
But with inflation at 4.1%, the actual increase in those numbers ends up being about half the touted figures.
The boost doesn’t go far enough, advocates said.
“This is still not a huge win for kids,” said Priyanka Reyes-Kaura, K-12 policy director for Children First, a nonprofit backing increased public education funding. “Students living in underfunded school districts in Pennsylvania really need” more.
Most public education funding in Pennsylvania comes not from the state, but local property taxes — creating large gaps between wealthy and poor districts. An expert for plaintiffs in the trial that led to February’s Commonwealth Court ruling said districts were underfunded by $4.6 billion, with most of the state’s 500 districts requiring more money to adequately educate students.
‘The increase is not what we expected’
Numerous underfunded districts won’t even get increases that keep pace with inflation. In total, 82 districts are slated to receive funding increases that don’t match inflation; 71 of those were already deemed underfunded.
Among them is Bristol Borough in Bucks County, where the budget numbers took district officials by surprise.
”I can tell you, the increase is not what we expected,” said Broadus Davis, the district’s superintendent. “I feel that we deserve more from the state.”
Bristol will see just a 3.7% increase in state aid. The Bucks County district — most of whose pupils are children of color who come from economically disadvantaged families — is “on a tightrope,” Davis said. “Costs continue to rise — social security, transportation, special ed.”
Bristol will “continue to do what we need to do, but it puts us at risk,” Davis said. “It doesn’t take us to what we deserve.”
The neediest schools got more money, but it doesn’t close gaps
The plan does target money to Pennsylvania’s neediest schools — including by designating an additional $100 million for the so-called “Level Up” program. While Pennsylvania’s school funding formula is weighted to direct more money to schools with large numbers of students in poverty and other needs, it only applies to a portion of what the state spends on public education.
Still, some area school districts are slated to receive double-digit percentage increases: The Norristown Area School District is slated to get an 18.5% increase, for instance, while the Southeast Delco School District is expected to get a 14.7% increase.
Level Up, started in 2021, created a separate funding stream for 100 of the state’s poorest districts. (House Democrats said the selected districts spend the least per pupil, adjusted for poverty, English-language-learner status and other needs.)
Shapiro’s budget proposal in March didn’t include new funding for Level Up. Amid a push from education advocates, lawmakers put another $100 million into the program.
Still, the plan doesn’t close gaps between wealthy and poor districts.
“Pennsylvania’s unconstitutional system of public school funding continues to leave the students who need the most support with the least, because they live in low-wealth communities,” said the Education Law Center and Public Interest Law Center, which represented plaintiffs in the funding trial. The groups said the funding increases, “while appreciated, do not fundamentally change the unconstitutional and unacceptable status quo.”
Advocates say the plan doesn’t designate money for toxic schools
The spending plan didn’t appear to designate money for repairing aging and toxic school facilities — an especially acute problem in Philadelphia, where asbestos contamination closed six district school buildings this year, and the district has an estimated $5 billion in facilities needs.
“There’s no money to remediate the school building conditions, or to upgrade them,” said state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (D., Phila.), one of a number of Democrats who had pushed for more investment in school facilities.
Still, a Senate Republican spokesperson said that leaders plan to expand an already existing school grant program to include school remediation.
A statement released from Shapiro’s office cited $125 million in the budget in “school safety and environmental improvement grants so all children have the opportunity to grow and learn in safe, healthy environments.”
What happened to vouchers?
The spending plan approved by the House includes $100 million for a voucher program, which would give families money to send children within the attendance boundaries of low-achieving public schools to private schools. But in order to get House Democrats to sign off on the plan, Shapiro — who had favored the voucher proposal, along with Senate Republicans — promised to veto the spending.
Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the governor’s veto pledge “removes our concerns with the budget bill,” and said the state must “focus on fixing Pennsylvania’s unconstitutional public school funding system rather than cooking up new tuition voucher schemes that waste taxpayers’ money.”
It’s unclear when the budget will become official. Both the House and Senate must still pass legislation that outlines how the state can spend money, and sign the spending bill before it can go to Shapiro for his signature. But the Senate isn’t scheduled to reconvene until September, and its leaders had announced no plans as of Wednesday morning to return to Harrisburg.
Staff writer Gillian McGoldrick contributed to this article.