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Pa. education officials detail $1B plan for fair school funding

Pennsylvania Education Secretary Khalid Mumin speaks during a state House Appropriations Committee hearing on education funding. (Credit: Pennsylvania House video/ Pennsylvania Capital-Star)

Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
March 6, 2024

State House lawmakers questioned Pennsylvania Education Secretary Khalid Mumin on Tuesday about Gov. Josh Shapiro’s $1.1 billion proposal to put public schools across the state on equal footing.

While the plan, which also calls for $300 million for building repairs and millions of dollars more for mental health, school safety and security, and free feminine hygiene products in schools, was broadly endorsed, some GOP lawmakers questioned whether it would force districts already meeting performance goals to spend more and rural districts to merge.

Rep. Thomas Kutz (R-Cumberland) noted that Cumberland Valley School District in his legislative district is one of the 75 state school districts identified as meeting the state’s metrics for a successful school district. It achieves that while spending less than the $13,704 average for those 75 districts.

“Why aren’t we looking at performance as the number one metric if we want better performing schools?” Kutz asked. “Let’s not create some arbitrary spend number that says if you don’t spend this much per student, you’re not doing well enough.”

The Shapiro administration and the General Assembly must respond to a Commonwealth Court ruling in 2023 that declared Pennsylvania’s system of funding public education unconstitutional because its reliance on property tax discriminates against students in less wealthy areas.

The General Assembly last year convened a bipartisan, inter-branch commission with members from each caucus in both chambers and top education and budget officials from the administration.

In January the Basic Education Funding Commission adopted a majority report that identified a $5.4 billion funding shortfall over the next seven years and a plan to make that investment is reflected in Shapiro’s budget proposal.

At the heart of the plan is a calculation that uses the average per-student spending for the state’s most successful districts to establish a goal for adequate spending. The average is multiplied by a district’s student headcount, which is weighted for factors such as students learning English as a second language and poverty levels, among others. 

The result is the target for what a district should be spending per student. What the district is actually spending is subtracted from the target amount to determine its funding shortfall.

Of the nearly $1.1 billion in new education funding in Shapiro’s proposal, $872 million would be distributed through the new fair funding formula as an initial investment in underfunded schools. The remaining $200 million would be distributed through the basic education funding formula to establish new baseline funding amounts for all districts.

Jessica Sites, director of the Education Department’s Bureau of Budget and Fiscal Management, said during the hearing the education funding plan also includes a tax-relief element for school districts that are taxing property owners at a higher rate. 

In its report, the funding commission described $291 million of the $5.4 billion shortfall as the responsibility of school districts that have lower tax rates.

“It’s not a mandate to raise taxes as so many folks think it is,” Sites said, noting that school districts in Pennsylvania can choose to tax at a higher rate to generate more revenue but taxpayers can’t afford to pay it. 

State Rep. Joshua Siegel (D-Lehigh) said that is the case in Allentown School District, in his constituency.

“W​​e have consistently asked our residents … to try to balance the budget, where to your point, we simply just don’t have that ability. We are quite literally limited in our capacity to sustain our districts locally,” Siegel said.

Sites said the local tax equity element of the new funding plan would address such scenarios but the details of the formula haven’t been fleshed out.

“We don’t necessarily know how that’s going to impact at the local level but it will act as a form of tax relief,” Sites said.

Among rural school districts, such as Northwestern Area School District in Rep. Mike Cabell’s (R-Luzerne) district, the existing fair funding formula has failed to account for the additional expenses carried by smaller school districts, forcing cuts in staff, programs and facilities. As it has been proposed the new plan would force districts to consolidate, Cabell said.

“Is that your goal? Cabell asked during the hearing. ”Because this plan is a direct attack on rural school districts.”

Sites said the plan is not intended to require districts to merge or close schools. 

“You’re talking about cutting extracurriculars, cutting teachers, cutting staff, transportation issues, this $1.1 billion is meant to help address those particular issues,” she said.

Mumin added that rural school districts have been included in discussions and that he has heard from rural superintendents that the funding formula will help them. 

As a parent, Rep Elizabeth Fiedler (D-Philadelphia) said the issue of deferred maintenance in schools across the state became personal for her when her children’s school closed last year when asbestos was discovered. 

“We know about heat issues, asbestos, lead, mold, rodents,” Fiedler said “I asked my kids about some of these issues and they said, we thought that’s just the way it was. That to me is crushing.”

She asked how the Education Department would determine where the $300 million for school repairs would be directed if approved, noting that the department recently received a federal grant to fund three positions to help districts assess their facilities needs.

Sites said the grant would allow the department to begin a process with about 30 of the highest need school districts to catalog facilities needs.

“It’s going to help us collect data,” Sites said. “It’s going to give us support to collect that data and a system that we’ve already really built. So we’re super excited about it.” 

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.