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Gov. Wolf’s budget: Good for education, but more is needed, advocates say

Philadelphia's increase in state aid over last year would be $48.3 million.

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

Gov. Wolf’s budget proposal includes significant additional funds for education, which advocates say is welcome but will make only incremental progress in reducing Pennsylvania’s gap between the richest and poorest districts – the largest of any state. Some Pennsylvania districts spend nearly three times as much per student as others.

UPDATED Feb. 6: The proposed budget, which would require approval by the Republican-controlled legislature, includes an increase of $200 million in the Basic Education Formula. But this figure includes a Ready to Learn block grant that is being folded into the formula, from which Philadelphia received $40 million. So although Philadelphia’s basic education allotment would get a boost of $88.6 million, according to a spreadsheet on the Pennsylvania Department of Education website, Philadelphia’s actual increase in state aid over last year would be $48.3 million.

Wolf also proposed a $50 million increase in special education aid. Of that sum, Philadelphia would get $8.3 million more, increasing its allocation to $153.7 million. Philadelphia receives $1.2 billion in basic education aid, or about 17 percent of the state’s total allocation of $6.5 billion. The governor also wants $10 million more for career and technical education.

“Pennsylvania’s students sorely need every dollar that the governor has proposed,” said Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, which is representing plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking an overhaul of the state’s funding formula to reduce the spending gaps and send more money to poorer districts. “But it will take much more significant investments, targeted to the most disadvantaged school districts, to close our state’s longstanding resource gaps and fix its broken education funding system.”

Mayor Kenney was supportive of the proposal, although he noted that the need is greater.

“For the fifth consecutive year, [Wolf] is proposing increased investments in both early childhood and K-12 education, and we know even more will be needed to have a fair and equitable funding system across the Commonwealth,” the mayor said in a statement.

The Philadelphia School District issued a statement saying officials were “optimistic that one of the main focuses of Governor Tom Wolf’s budget proposal is public education. The proposed increases of $200 million and $50 million for basic and special education, respectively, the expansion of early childhood education, and strengthened workforce development training would help facilitate even more progress in Philadelphia’s public schools. … We look forward to working with both the Governor and the legislature so that the enacted budget provides important and needed increases in education funding.”

In this budget, the first of Wolf’s second term, the governor also proposes raising the minimum wage for teachers to $45,000. It now stands at $18,500 and hasn’t been changed since 1989. He inserted $13 million into the budget for that purpose, most of which would go to small rural districts where teachers make less than that.

He also proposes lowering the state’s age for compulsory school attendance from 8 years to 6 years. The compulsory age in Philadelphia has been 6 years for nearly a decade.

PA Schools Work, a nonpartisan coalition of organizations representing urban, suburban, and rural communities, said that there are “several bright spots” in the governor’s proposal, citing a $10 million increase in career and technical education.

The statement added: “Given what it takes to simply keep up with the mandated obligations public schools face, like charter school payments, pensions and special education, an even bolder investment in basic education and special education is necessary to deliver what Pennsylvania students need.”

Much of local budgets are consumed by pension costs – which the state has also underfunded for years. In addition, costs associated with charter school growth are significant. A line item reimbursing districts for these costs was eliminated under former Gov. Tom Corbett and has not been restored. Philadelphia, which has half the state’s charter schools, received more than $100 million of the $200 million allocation that was adopted under former Gov. Ed Rendell.

A statement from Pre-K for PA, which is part of a statewide coalition of advocates focused on supporting Pennsylvanians from birth to age 5, was heartened by the proposed $40 million increase in Pre-K Counts and $10 million in Head Start and expressed optimism that the legislature would support this “bipartisan budget priority.”

But its “celebration … is tempered by the harsh reality that PA ranks 18th of the 30 states investing in high-quality pre-K, and with this new investment, about 100,000 eligible children still lack access.”

When Wolf first took office in 2015, he was far more ambitious in his goals for increasing education funding, promising an overhaul of the state’s tax system and $2 billion in additional education investments. The Republican legislature balked at the tax proposals, which included hikes in the income and sales taxes, as well as closing business tax loopholes and enacting a levy on shale drillers. As a result, he had a nine-month stalemate with the General Assembly as he began his governorship.

His subsequent education funding increase proposals were more modest; in total, the state’s spending during his first term increased by about $365 million in basic education and closer to $800 million when other funds, like those for special education, career and technical education, and early childhood education, are included.

Despite these increases, the state share of total education spending in Pennsylvania is among the lowest in the country at about 37 percent, putting more burden on local districts.

“The state needs to move with more urgency to allocate adequate dollars and address the gaps between more and less affluent districts,” said Gordon Klehr of ELC. She noted that the funding gaps have continued to widen during Wolf’s governorship: “In 2012-13, the gap in per-pupil spending between a typical affluent district and a typical poor district in the state was $3,058 per child. By 2016-17, it had grown to $3,778 per child.”

The legislature passed a fair funding formula in 2014 that gives more funds to districts that have additional needs caused by a higher concentration of poverty, more English learners and other circumstances. But it applied the formula only to new allocations and inserted a “hold harmless” clause that assured no district would get less than it got the year before, regardless of a dip in enrollment or other changes in demographics or local taxing capacity. This did not address inequities that had built up over more than two decades of funding decisions that were not based on enrollment numbers and were often made on the basis of politics. Now, just $704 million of the total basic education aid of more than $6 billion is distributed using that formula.

The statement from PA Schools Work said that “years of underinvestment by the state has left schools $3 billion short in basic education and $1.38 billion short in special education.” It is calling for $400 million in additional funds driven through the fair funding formula and an additional $100 million for special education.

The lawsuit pursued by ELC, along with the Public Interest Law Center, has advanced further in the court system than any prior suit challenging the funding system. The Supreme Court has ordered that it go to full trial on the merits in Commonwealth Court in the summer of 2020.

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