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Making sense of Pa. school funding: Budgets, formulas and stalemates

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

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As Pennsylvania’s July 1 budget deadline nears, state education funding for schools is still a question mark.

Over the weekend, legislators held 12-hour sessions and advocates flooded the Capitol in Harrisburg to work on a deal, but Democrats and Republicans have shot down each other’s plans. Swirling through the budget debate are two questions that will have a big impact on schools’ bottom lines: How much money should the state contribute to education this year? And what should be done with the new education funding formula?

Let’s start with the budget. Gov. Wolf unveiled his budget in March with a promise of an additional $400 million for basic education funding. There’s more money for higher education and pre-kindergarten, but basic education is the simplest way to break out the state’s contribution for regular K-12 funding. It’s also the bread and butter for the districts that aren’t able to raise as much from local property taxes, generally poor and rural districts.

The state House of Representatives has approved the GOP’s counterplan. It would contribute $100 million to basic education funding and $20 million more to special education, while boasting "no new taxes."

A spokesman for State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia) said Democrats have poked some significant holes in the GOP budget.

"We believe that this budget only provides an additional $8 million for public education," said Ben Waxman, Hughes’ press secretary. "And the reason for that is there are a couple of gimmicks and sleights of hand in the legislation that are going to wind up eliminating even the very modest increase."

Those gimmicks, he said, include restructuring $87 million in Social Security payments and $25 million in pension burdens to effectively erase $112 million of the $120 million for basic and special education funding.

Republicans have a different view. "Eight million dollars is a fallacy," said State Sen. Pat Browne (R-Lehigh). He said Democrats are cherry-picking budget items to reduce the appearance of Republican’s contribution to education.

Wolf has said he would likely veto — in whole or in part — the Republican budget as it now stands. Democrats and Republicans have already voted down the governor’s tax plan. If a veto does happen, it’s likely that both sides will come back to the table after the Fourth of July holiday and start to seek a compromise.

State Rep. Mike Vereb (R-Montgomery) said that new taxes — if they happen — would probably result in more money for education. "We’d love more money. I think anyone would love more money," said Vereb.

In the meantime, he said, the legislature recognizes the fact that how it spends money now isn’t fair.

"With education, there are areas that need more money than others," he said. "That’s the [funding] formula that we came up with."

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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