Pa. advocates push for new Level Up funds ahead of 2023-24 budget negotiations
‘Level Up is not a comprehensive solution. It has always been intended to be a patch that would help us get from where we are now to a constitutional funding system by ensuring that we are not continuing to neglect the poorest students and the poorest school districts,’ Education Voters of Pennsylvania Executive Director Susan Spicka said
Inside the hallways of Pennsylvania’s Capitol Building on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star)
After a Commonwealth Court judge ordered Pennsylvania elected officials and educators to reform how the state funds public K-12 schools, advocates expected a “significant down payment” in Gov. Josh Shapiro’s first budget address, beginning the lengthy and complicated process to fix the system.
Shapiro has proposed a significant increase in K-12 education spending, totaling more than $1 billion, including a $567.4 million increase in Basic Education funding and a $103.8 million increase in Special Education funding.
Still, some advocates worry the governor’s spending plan — which doesn’t expand the Level Up special funding program that prioritizes the state’s 100 poorest school districts — doesn’t go far enough to meet the constitutional mandate for a “thorough and efficient” education.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the school funding case said the governor’s plan, because it does not include any new funding for the Level Up program, “takes a step backwards.”
“The moment calls for more,” lawyers from the Public Interest Law Center, Education Law Center, and international law firm O’Melveny & Myers wrote in a statement.
During a more than hour-long speech to a joint session of the Legislature, the Democratic governor called the 786-page Commonwealth Court order a “call to action” and urged GOP lawmakers involved in the landmark school funding case against filing an appeal. Shapiro acknowledged that developing a new funding formula will take time, saying his budget proposal “is the first step.”
“It will take all of us — Republicans and Democrats; teachers and administrators; students and families; advocates and community leaders,” Shapiro said in his remarks. “It will take all of our ideas for not just how many dollars we set aside from the state for public education but how we drive those dollars out to local districts adequately and equitably.”
During a months-long trial, they argued that Pennsylvania schools are underfunded by $4.6 billion. They did not request a specific dollar amount in the case. Instead, they asked the court to rule that the General Assembly enact a new way to pay for public education, a system the Legislature has grappled with in the past.
Pennsylvania passed the Fair Funding Formula in 2016, which decides financial allocations across the state’s 500 school districts. The new system only applies to new funds and uses outdated population numbers. In practice, this hurts schools in the eastern half of the state, which are growing, and keeps money in western school districts, which are shrinking.
The Level Up funding initiative, created with help from advocates by state Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, was first implemented by former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in 2021. Last year’s budget included $225 million for Level Up.
Shapiro’s proposed budget flat-funds the Level Up program under Basic Education funding, Schlossberg told the Capital-Star. That means spending remains at $225 million.
In talks with the governor’s office, Schlossberg said the goal is to move away from one-time spending and instead focus on multi-year investments.
“I and my colleagues in the Shapiro administration are looking at this budget as the start of a multi-year process and a down payment towards fulfilling our moral and legal obligations,” Schlossberg said.
He added that the recent Commonwealth Court decision adds new urgency to the issue.
Budget hearings in the House and Senate begin next week, and Schlossberg said that he doesn’t expect allocations for Level Up funding to face any opposition from his GOP colleagues since many of the rural districts they represent benefit from the initiative.
“One of the really brilliant things about Level Up is how bipartisan it is,” Schlossberg said.
A coalition of advocacy groups called Level Up said they were “shocked and bewildered” that Shapiro didn’t earmark new funding for the state’s 100 poorest school districts.
“The Level Up supplement would accelerate funding to the 100 school districts that have been most impacted by decades of underfunding,” the coalition said in a statement. “Along with a proposed $567 million in Basic Education funding, it would help to fill an estimated $4.6 billion education funding gap. Level Up is a powerful tool Pennsylvania should use to achieve the court’s mandate.”
Education Voters of Pennsylvania Executive Director Susan Spicka, who’s also a Level Up coalition member, told the Capital-Star that she was disappointed the Level Up supplement was left out of Shapiro’s budget proposal, saying that the program is the “only mechanism we have easily available to deal with the issue of inequities in school funding.”
Spicka noted that she hopes the final budget proposal approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor will include additional Level Up funding on top of Shapiro’s proposal.
“Level Up is not a comprehensive solution. It has always been intended to be a patch that would help us get from where we are now to a constitutional funding system by ensuring that we are not continuing to neglect the poorest students and the poorest school districts,” she said, noting that leaving out new Level Up funding doesn’t make addressing the funding system harder. “It just means that the kids who need the most are going to continue to have less because the supplement’s not there. There’s no new funding.”
Despite some disappointment from last week’s spending proposal, Spicka said she’s optimistic that this year’s budget “will be a down payment” and that next year’s budget will be even stronger when it comes to addressing how Pennsylvania funds its public schools.
“Who is going to oppose providing school funding to the schools in the communities they represent, that’s going to fix problems for kids,” she said. “Who’s going to oppose that?”
Schlossberg told the Capital-Star that he understands how frustrating the budget process can be for advocates, but stressed the need to focus on cumulative impact, citing an example from his Lehigh Valley district.
“The Allentown School District, this year, proposes the initial budget with no new taxes. The first time that they’ve done that in five years, and there’s no doubt that previous state investments, including Level Up, made that possible,” Schlossberg said. “We are doing our job. And what’s frustrating in the budget universe [is] sometimes, [it] takes years before you can really see the impact.”
A signed spending plan must be in place by the start of the fiscal year on July 1.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.