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Pa. House Education Committee advances 7-year school funding plan, cyber charter reform

  • Jillian Forstadt/WESA
The Pennsylvania state capitol building and Soldier's Grove in Harrisburg on May 13, 2024. (Jeremy Long - WITF)

The Pennsylvania state capitol building and Soldier's Grove in Harrisburg on May 13, 2024. (Jeremy Long - WITF)

State lawmakers will soon consider a bill Democrats say could close funding gaps between the Commonwealth’s poorest and wealthiest school districts, although the prospects for the legislation in the Republican-controlled Senate are murky at best.

A proposal by House Democrats includes funneling an additional $5.1 billion to underfunded school districts, as recommended by the Basic Education Funding Commission earlier this year. Lawmakers propose doing so through increases of $728 million in state funding for each of the next seven years.

“Over a seven-year period, not only is it financially feasible, but it allows school districts in a very planned and predictable manner to be able to improve the education system in the state of Pennsylvania,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster).

The reform package is backed by House Democratic leadership. Democrats moved the bill out of the Education Committee Tuesday, one day after it was introduced, but without Republican support.

Minority-party lawmakers warned that such a one-sided process may not bode well.

“For an 87-page document to come out one day with language and to be voted out of committee the next day, that is not going to be a bipartisan product or something that is agreed to moving forward,” said Republican state Rep. Jesse Topper of Bedford County.

Democrats, however, argued that the legislation builds on long-discussed changes, including those mandated by a Commonwealth Court ruling last year.

Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer deemed the state’s current school funding system unconstitutional because it failed to provide students with the resources needed to have a “meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and civically.”

The legislation advanced Tuesday heeds that ruling, Democrats say, by reducing the extent to which districts rely on property taxes to fund their schools. In addition to the yearly increases in basic education funding, the legislation creates “tax equity supplements” to help 169 school districts relieve overburdened taxpayers.

Democrats promise that doing so would allow for $136 million in property tax relief this year alone — roughly the amount included in Governor Josh Shapiro’s latest budget proposal. They say the approach would save $955 million over seven years.

“The funding that [school districts] will receive at least provides the prospect that, for the next seven to 10 years, they might not actually raise taxes at all,” Sturla said. “This is about helping local taxpayers in addition to helping the children in our school.”

If passed, House Bill 2370 would also codify a pledge Shaprio made in his latest budget proposal: an $8,000 per student cap on cyber charter school tuition ratest, with adjustments available for students receiving special education services.

In addition, the bill lifts pieces from past legislation intended to create basic accountability measures for cyber charters, such as financial reporting mandates and a limit on surplus funds. The new legislation outlines how much money cyber charters can keep in their reserves, aligning cyber charters with current fund balance limits for public school districts.

According to House Democratic leaders, these changes would save the Commonwealth’s 500 school districts $530 million over the next year, and $3.7 billion over seven years.

“Imagine how much everyone would save in taxes if $530 million went back to the taxpayers, and still ensuring the opportunity for school choice,” said state Rep. Joe Ciresi (D-Montgomery).

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