Capital-Star Staff Reporter Stephen Caruso contributed to this story.
Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at a rally for public education funding on June 8, 2021. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)
With a year-and-a-half left in office, Gov. Tom Wolf and his fellow Democrats are staking his legacy on the issue that got him elected seven years ago: Education.
“Gov. Wolf might be gone in 18 months, but he’s not gonna be forgotten,” Rep. Matthew Bradford, of Montgomery County, the top Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said. “His legacy is what we do on these school funding issues.”
Wolf and his allies in the General Assembly took to the Capitol steps on Tuesday where they called for fair education for all Pennsylvania schools.
The state has struggled to equitably distribute its billions in annual education funding across its 500 school districts.
That’s because the formula used to allocate that money used outdated population numbers from the early 1990s. In practice, this hurts schools in the eastern half of the state, which are growing, and keeps funds in western school districts, which are shrinking.
In 2016, the state established a modernized fair funding formula that directs money to schools based on enrollment, student poverty percentage and household income, and the district’s capacity to raise local revenues. But, the formula only applies to new funding, which has kept in place funding allocations based on outdated data.
“That’s a big problem, and it needs a big solution,” Wolf said.
Wolf’s “big solution” calls for running all state education funds through the formula, and creating performance standards to hold low-performing charter schools accountable for the quality of education and their spending.
His plan also would limit cyber-school enrollment until the educational quality improves, require charter programs to have policies that prevent nepotism and conflicts of interest, and ensure leaders abide by state Ethics Commission requirements.
The state has $3 billion in tax revenue over projections in the treasury and $7.3 billion in COVID-19 relief funds, so the General Assembly has an opportunity to invest in education and funding reform.
This would be enough, Democrats said, to fully fund schools that have received the short end of the funding stick for decades while preventing others from losing money.
But this deal requires Republican buy-in, which doesn’t seem forthcoming.
“We’ll continue our discussion with the governor and everybody else to see what we can do in education,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, told the Capital-Star. “There is nothing off the table.”
Saylor didn’t write off increased education funding this year. But he disagreed that there was enough new revenue to funnel all education funding through the new formula and protect all schools from budget cuts.
But as Wolf and legislative Democrats are calling for increased accountability with education spending, Republicans who control the state Senate Republicans are advancing legislation to expand educational choice for families.
On Monday, the Senate Education Committee voted 6-5 to advance legislation that critics worry will result in unintended consequences for school systems and taxpayers.
The bill sponsored by the panel’s chairman, Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, would expand the state cap on tax credits for businesses that fund scholarships for private and religious schools and the tax credit by millions of dollars.
Citing the state Department of Community and Economic Development, Martin said the legislation is necessary to help the thousands who applied for the Education Improvement Tax Credit and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit programs.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, said the bill would give families the chance to select the learning program that’s best for their children without having to worry about how to pay for it.
“Education is a very personal thing, and everyone has different avenues and different needs, and I think this bill goes a long, long way to putting that decision-making in the right hands, the hands of parents and family members and guardians who know their children best,” Corman said.
Not every Republican committee member was on board with the proposal. Sen. Michele Brooks, R-Mercer, voted against the bill, saying lawmakers should be “more pragmatic” and make sure the legislation won’t come with “unintended consequences.”
She added that she would like to see a regional component where credits are distributed equitably throughout Pennsylvania.
Lenny McAllister, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, called the bill “a step in the right direction” for parental empowerment. As for Wolf, McAllister told the Capital-Star that he thinks the governor is only focused on the state’s 500 public school districts.
“Our coalition and our allies are focused on all Pennsylvania school children,” he said.
McAllister added: “We are at a moment to do the right thing for all Pennsylvania school children.”
Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, voiced strong opposition to the proposal.
In a statement, PSEA President Rich Askey said he was disappointed to see committee members vote to revoke hundreds of millions from public schools.
“Members of the education committee should be helping public schools, particularly on the heels of the challenges students and educators have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said, encouraging lawmakers to oppose Martin’s bill and focus on student needs rather than taking away resources from public schools.
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