A $34 billion budget plan approved by the state House Tuesday boosts basic education spending by $160 million, but public school advocates say Pennsylvania’s school districts need even more to cover ever-increasing expenses.
The House-approved appropriation is 20 percent, or $40 million, less than what Gov. Tom Wolf first proposed to lawmakers back in February.
“This lets districts tread water,” said Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters of PA, a nonprofit public education advocacy group. “I’m hoping that next year, we will see a much bigger ask so we can really start to make progress toward building the schools our kids need.”
Spicka said that state funding isn’t keeping pace with the mounting costs of special education, charter school tuition payments, and employee benefits — mandated costs that districts can’t cut without violating state or federal law.
Spending on those three areas grew by a combined 7.8 percent for the average Pennsylvania school district last year, according to an annual survey of school district budgets from the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.
Seventy-four percent of the districts they surveyed said they planned to levy a tax hike to make up the difference.
Spicka and others say that more generous state aid — or reforms to charter school funding laws — could provide crucial relief for local property taxpayers. But right now, “the state is coming up short” on both measures, Spicka said.
The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, which represents school district finance officers across the state, agreed.
The $160 million bump in state aid is a “step in the right direction” for districts, said PASBO Director of Advocacy Hannah Barrick. But based on recent spending trends, “most of it, if not all, is going to be gobbled up by those mandated costs,” she said.
Advocates pointed to a $50 million increase in special education funding as one bright spot in the budget.
According to Donna Cooper, president of Public Citizens For Children and Youth, “the historic increase in special education funding shows that people in Harrisburg know districts really are struggling.”
But Cooper, a former policy secretary to Gov. Ed Rendell, questioned why the money wasn’t put in the basic education funding instead. That would funnel it through the state’s new fair funding formula, which distributes aid to districts based on student poverty levels, enrollment, and the wealth of the local tax base.
Lawmakers adopted the fair funding formula in 2016, after a commission created under ex-Gov. Tom Corbett found that changing enrollment patterns had generated wide inequities in school district funding across the state.
The Legislature agreed to leave historic funding levels unchanged and funnel basic education increases through the new formula — a compromise they said would gradually level the playing field among Pennsylvania’s 500 public school districts.
But education experts say the state has billions of dollars to go before that day finally comes to pass.
A report from the Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia found that Pennsylvania would have to distribute $3.2 billion through the funding formula to give all districts what they need to help students reach state accountability standards.
“We need to see sustained increases over multiple years to close the gaps and get us where we need to be,” Deborah Gordon-Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, said. “Pennsylvania has a long way to go to be able to say they are equitably funding its schools.”
A 2017 report from the Education Law Center found that Pennsylvania ranked 46th nationally for the share of state funding it provided to local school districts. But Cooper said that could soon change, thanks to a new accounting practice by House Republicans.
The spending plan approved Tuesday appears to nearly eliminate funding for school employees’ Social Security payments. The $541 million line item from last year stands at just $64 million in this year’s budget.
House Republicans who drafted this year’s budget moved those funds to the state’s basic education budget. That line item now registers a 10 percent increase over last year — almost $6.7 billion compared to $6.1 billion.
Merging the Social Security funds with the $160 million increase in basic education spending “looks like a giant increase” in basic education funding, Cooper said.
Cooper fears the tactic will mislead the public to think that Pennsylvania lawmakers authorized historic growth in education funding, even though the Social Security money won’t be spent on students.
But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, said the move conforms with budget practices in other states.
Unlike Pennsylvania, most state governments combine education spending items in their basic education budget, Saylor said. Pennsylvania’s failure to do made its spending look lower in comparison.
“We’re not getting credit nationally for the amount we’re spending in education,” Saylor said. “It’s not fair when you’re missing $500 million and you’re not getting credit on a national basis.”
Capital-Star reporter Stephen Caruso contributed to this report.