Pa. Democrats unveil $3.75B education spending blueprint ahead of budget season

‘Now, with historic revenues available, we need to utilize a bold program like this to respond to the needs of our teachers, our families, and most importantly, our students,” Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia said Monday

By: - January 31, 2022 3:37 pm

Pa. Senate Democratic Appropriations Chair Vincent Hughes speaks at a rally for public education funding on June 8, 2021 (Capital-Star photo).

Ahead of the upcoming budget season, legislative Democrats have formally launched a push for the most significant funding allocation for Pennsylvania schools in state history, unveiling a blueprint that would allocate $3.75 billion for education, staffing recruitment and retention, and classroom resources.

The proposal, which House and Senate Democrats hope to pass as part of the 2022-23 state budget, would use $2.75 billion out of the general fund and $1 billion from unspent federal American Rescue Plan funds allocated to Pennsylvania last year.

Democrats in the Republican-controlled General Assembly touted a projected $6 billion to $7 billion budget surplus by the end of the current fiscal year, saying their proposal — branded the Full Funding Plan — does not touch the $2.6 billion in the state’s rainy day fund. Although exact estimates vary among Democrats and Republicans, there could be upwards of $10 billion in extra cash this year.

“This historic moment responds to a historic problem that has been existing in Pennsylvania for generations,” Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said Monday during a virtual press conference.

 “Now, with historic revenues available, we need to utilize a bold program like this to respond to the needs of our teachers, our families, and most importantly, our students,” Hughes, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said. 

The plan, announced amid an ongoing school funding trial and COVID-related education staffing shortage, would allocate:

  • $1.1 billion into the Fair Funding Formula, which determines appropriates for state public schools
  • $750 million into the Level Up Program
  • $1.1 billion for toxic school remediation
  • $250 million for staffing and recruitment 
  • $125 million for mental health support
  • $100 million for academic support

“These are our future doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, counselors, and we must seize this moment,” Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, said. “The last three years have shown us that our schools are in many ways the keystone of our society. And for a better society, we must invest in our public education system.”

Last year’s budget appropriated $300 million for education, including $200 million for the Fair Funding Formula and $100 million for Level Up, a funding program that prioritizes Pennsylvania’s poorest school districts.

Though the bipartisan investment was lauded by Democrats and Republicans, including Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, some have argued that schools need more funding to address learning gaps and staffing struggles related to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as years of inequitable funding.

On Monday, the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, and Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools released an annual budget report, which identified labor issues as the No. 1 concern for school officials.

The report recommended that lawmakers expand funding for schools experiencing growth in mandated costs to avoid local tax increases and find ways to help schools using federal ESSER funds sustain their programs before the current 2024 expiration date. 

Their plan also recommended that policymakers help schools address supply chain, labor, and fiscal challenges to ensure transportation, food service, technology, and infrastructure updates can continue to ensure students have access to quality education and classroom support.

Wolf, who staked his legacy on education, touted a projected budget surplus in a press conference last week, promoting $225 million for health care worker relief as “an indication of what we can do” with excess funds. 

Legislative Republican budget officials, however, have been hesitant to back calls to spend surplus dollars.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairperson Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, said at a press conference last week that while the state’s growing surplus might look good in the short run, current reserves need to cover future bills.

“With reasonable projections on revenue, mandatory spending, and historic estimates of how much we would put in education, we achieve fiscal balance” by 2024, Browne told reporters.

He added: “A short-term financial position has to always be taken seriously by this commonwealth, and the long-term position of the commonwealth needs to be taken seriously, so it can properly serve its constituents for the years to come.”

Wolf, who leaves office next year, is expected to unveil his final budget proposal next week, Elizabeth Rementer, a spokesperson for the governor, told the Capital-Star in an email. She added that Wolf will consider Democrats’ spending plan as he prepares to deliver his own.

In an analysis, the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a progressive research organization that studies the economy and public policy, estimates that Democrats’ plan would lower the shortfall in state funding per student in school districts with the highest poverty rate by $1,350, dropping it to $1,431 per student. 

The report also concluded that the shortfall in state funding per student for the lowest poverty school districts would reduce by $151, totaling $111 per student.

“An additional $1.85 billion in funding would still leave K-12 students in school districts with high levels of poverty and high shares of Black and Hispanic students underfunded points to how radically unfair Pennsylvania’s school funding is today,” Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, said. “That being said, the Democratic plan is a major step forward, which all members of the General Assembly should applaud.”

Capital-Star Staff Reporter Stephen Caruso contributed to this story.

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