By Peter Hall | Pennsylvania Capital-Star
Gov. Josh Shapiro’s $44.4 billion budget proposal makes a sizable investment in public education as a starting point to begin addressing funding disparities among the state’s 500 school districts, Pennsylvania Acting Education Secretary Khalid Mumin said on Monday.
In the first of several House Appropriations Committee hearings on education scheduled this week, Mumin called the nearly $17 billion in appropriations for K-12 education and state-related universities a huge step forward as the administration and lawmakers look at how to comply with a court order to make state education funding equitable.
“This is a strong foot forward with increases to be able to start the process. We’re looking forward and not looking in the rearview mirror,” Mumin said.
The budget includes a 7.8% increase in both basic and special education funding with an additional $100 million each for school-based mental health services, school safety and security enhancements, and building repairs and environmental remediation.
Together with smaller programs such as free breakfast in all K-12 schools and early childhood education, the budget proposes more than $1 billion in new education spending.
But lawmakers and advocates on Monday expressed concerns about the education proposal ranging from flat funding for the Level Up payments that boost the state’s 100 poorest districts to teacher recruitment and retention, and transportation.
Last month, Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer ruled that Pennsylvania’s education funding system is unconstitutional because it does not meet the state Constitution’s requirement of providing a “thorough and efficient” public education.
Through a reliance on property tax and a funding formula that favors wealthier districts, the General Assembly has deprived children in communities with lower property values and income of the same opportunities afforded to those in wealthier districts, Cohn Jubelirer wrote in an opinion produced after a months-long trial and years of litigation.
“We believe that the budget fails to meet the moment and is not providing the level of funding that we think is consistent with what that court decision requires,” Sharon Ward, senior policy advisor for the Education Law Center, told the Capital-Star. The Education Law Center is a public interest law firm that helped to represent the disadvantaged school districts that brought the funding suit.
Dan O’Brien, policy manager for Children First PA, said public education advocates would like to see the General Assembly and Shapiro work to increase the new funding for basic education to $700 million and put $300 million in new Level Up funding into the budget. Shapiro’s budget holds Level Up funding steady at $225 million.
“What you’re hearing in this hearing room today is teacher shortages across the state, you’re hearing facility issues across the state. You’re hearing mental health issues across the state with our students, you’re hearing resource issues across the state with our students, and then picture that in the lowest-wealth 100 districts, it’s tenfold,” O’Brien said.
Level Up was originally intended as a bridge to an equitable funding formula when it began, O’Brien said, but it’s still needed.
“This is a short-term fix to a long-term problem,” O’Brien said. “But if we continue to not address these 100 lowest wealth districts, they will continue to fall further behind than their peers across the state.”
In his testimony Monday, Mumin conceded that efforts at education funding reform over the last half-decade have resulted in additional disparities. Rep. Justin Fleming, D-Dauphin, noted, some school districts, including Susquehanna Township in his district, fund as much as 75% of their budgets through real estate taxes while the statewide average is about 50%.
Mumin noted, on the other hand, the state is funding up 80% of costs in the state’s poorest districts.
“This is an opportunity for us to examine the [basic education funding] and make it better. That’s part of the reason why I’m sitting here at this table today,” Mumin said. “It’s a heavy lift. I’m looking forward to engaging in this further dialogue and discussion around these issues, because it impacts all 67 counties throughout the Commonwealth.”
Rep. Toren Ecker, R-Adams, asked Mumin how a new funding framework would account for the fact that more funding doesn’t alway correlate with better student performance.
“As we’re evaluating how we’re funding our students, how we’re funding our education system … dumping money into the basic education funding might not always be the best solution,” Ecker said.
Mumin replied that student evaluations are dependent on a number of factors within a school district and outside. He noted that in the Reading School District, where he was superintendent, a majority of students were at a disadvantage on standardized testing because English was not their first language.
“When we’re talking about funding school districts that have external issues as well as internal issues, we have to invest in mental health, we have to invest in … the teacher pipeline, we have to provide students with a voice and parents and communities with a voice to help us to further lead. Lead our students through the educational system,” Mumin said.