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Education funding reform bill passes Pa. House as Senate school voucher plan waits in the wings

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Education funding reform bill passes Pa. House as Senate school voucher plan waits in the wings

Jun 10, 2024 | 9:23 pm ET
By Peter Hall
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Education funding reform bill passes Pa. House as Senate school voucher plan waits in the wings
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State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia) speaks at a rally Monday, June 10, 2024, at the Pennsylvania Capitol where education advocates spoke in opposition to school vouchers. (Capital-Star photo by Peter Hall)

A $6 billion plan to reform Pennsylvania’s public education funding system passed the state House in a bipartisan 107-94 vote Monday amid growing debate over a proposal to expand the amount of public money available to pay for private school tuition.

House Bill 2370 would put into law the recommendations of a bipartisan commission that found Pennsylvania must spend an additional $5.1 billion to erase school funding disparities that a state court ruled unconstitutional. The legislation would also end what critics call gross overpayments to cyber charter schools and set minimum salaries for teachers.

Supporters of the legislation said that if it passes in the state Senate and is signed by Gov. Josh Shapiro, it would end decades of underfunding public schools that deprived generations of students the education to which they were entitled by the state Constitution. It would also return to taxpayers $530 million a year in cyber charter tuition and provide $1 billion for property tax relief.

“HB 2370 cannot change the past,” said state Rep. Mary Isaacson (D-Philadelphia), who was a member of the Basic Education Funding Commission. “What it can do and what it will do is reshape and transform the future of every school district and student across the commonwealth.”

Republican lawmakers, who largely opposed the measure, said the plan was rushed through the House and represented a missed opportunity to overhaul not only the funding system, but the fundamental nature of public education in Pennsylvania. 

“What I was thinking when that ruling came out was, this was our opportunity for transformational change,” Rep. Jesse Topper (R-Bradford), the ranking Republican member of the House Education Committee, said in debate on the House floor. “This was our opportunity to upend the status quo when it comes to not just how we fund our schools, but how we deliver education.”

Senate Republicans, who will decide whether the upper chamber considers the funding reform bill and in what form, meanwhile are focused on expanding the state’s school voucher programs after House Democrats killed a bill they had negotiated with Shapiro last year. 

The Pennsylvania Award for Student Success (PASS) bill would have made an additional $100 million of taxpayer dollars available to pay private school tuition for students in the state’s lowest-performing public schools. The state already provides help for students to attend private and religious schools in the form of tax credits for companies and individuals who contribute to scholarship funds.

A revised version of the bill passed the Senate Education Committee last month with bipartisan support. A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R-Indiana) said the Senate GOP remains committed to “education empowerment, through parental involvement in the education of their children.”

In a statement on the passage of the House education bill, Pittman said every child in Pennsylvania deserves access to a quality education. But he echoed House Republicans’ objections to increasing funding without examining the broader education system. 

“The reality is the General Assembly has consistently invested more money in educating fewer students statewide. Accountability, reforms and implementing ways to further empower parents in the education of their children also must be key components of Pennsylvania’s education system moving forward,” Pittman said in the statement.  

On Monday, rapper Jay-Z’s entertainment company, Roc Nation, held the first of several “Dine and Learn” events in Philadelphia to promote the proposal. 

Dania Diaz, Roc Nation Managing Director of Philanthropy, told the Capital-Star that the events over the next two weeks are designed to make residents of some of the state’s most deeply disadvantaged neighborhoods aware of the program and answer questions.

“Hopefully at the end of the two weeks, there’ll be more people who can speak about it and can share the information and who will act on it,” Diaz said.

Labor leaders and public education advocates rallied against the proposal on the Capitol steps Monday afternoon, highlighting the link between the push for school vouchers and billionaire Republican mega donor Jeff Yass, whose PACs have funneled tens of millions of dollars into Pennsylvania politics.

State Sen. Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny) said at the rally the tax credit programs, which have grown to $340 million, funnel public money into unaccountable private and religious schools that are free to discriminate in who they admit.

“That’s not a secret. That’s the plan. It’s a plan to dismantle public education,” Williams said. “People like [former U.S. Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos and Jeffrey Yass and entities like the Commonwealth Foundation and the Pennsylvania Family Institute have been working on this for years.”

Williams noted that Shapiro, who last year vetoed funding for the PASS program to move the state budget toward completion, called school vouchers unfinished business.

“I can tell you what, it’s not our unfinished business. Unfinished business is the minimum $6 billion that we owe our students and families,” Williams said.

Commonwealth Court President Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer ruled in February 2023 that Pennsylvania’s reliance on property taxes to pay for public education deprived students in less wealthy communities of their constitutionally guaranteed opportunity for a public education. 

Pa. court sides with plaintiffs in K-12 school funding case

The decision followed nearly a decade of litigation by six school districts, a group of parents and education advocates and a four-month trial. It was a landmark victory for students and communities, said Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center, which litigated the case on behalf of the plaintiffs. 

“The victory is hollow without legislative reform,” McInerney said at the rally, hours before the House vote Monday. “We have an historic opportunity to begin that work towards constitutional compliance, and to upend a system that has resulted in educational apartheid, where children who are black and brown are more likely to receive an inadequate education.”

To comply with the Commonwealth Court order, the bill passed in the House calls for the state to pay $5.1 billion over the next seven budgets to boost the per-student spending of 371 school districts to match that of the state’s most successful school districts, as measured by the state Education Department’s standards. 

The bill would also provide an additional $200 million a year divided according to a revised fair funding formula between all 500 school districts. And it would freeze school districts’ base funding – known as “hold harmless” – at 2023-24 levels.

Finally, the bill would provide tax relief for 169 school districts that have struck the highest property tax rates to raise adequate funding. Those districts would share $1 billion in equity payments over seven years.

The 87-page bill includes two other legislative priorities of House Democrats.

Pa. House takes first step to make fair education funding plan into law

It incorporates legislation sponsored by state Rep. Joe Ciresi (D-Montgomery) to set a statewide tuition rate for cyber charter schools, which receive a range of different tuition payments based on school districts’ per-pupil spending. The measure would reduce districts’ tuition payments by $530 million.

“We are maintaining school choice, but we are returning money to the taxpayers. They have been overcharged for many, many, many years,” Ciresi said in debate on the House floor.

The bill would also permit school districts to use additional basic education funding to set a minimum salary of $60,000 for professional staff including teachers and $20 per hour for education support professionals.

Speaking at the rally Monday afternoon, House Speaker Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia) said the legislation would provide historic investments to uphold the Constitution and that Pennsylvania can’t afford to divert tax dollars to private programs.

“We’re not going to be dictated to, we’re not going to let outside interests in groups come and tell us how to do our jobs because we took an oath and that oath is to uphold the Constitution and the Constitution says all our children are supposed to have a thorough and efficient public education,” McClinton said.

John Cole of the Capital-Star staff contributed.