Capitol Beat

State panel advances Dem-backed report with school funding recommendations

The report suggests that $5.4 billion is needed to close a statewide education adequacy gap.

State Rep. Mike Sturla and state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill

State Rep. Mike Sturla and state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill Commonwealth Media Services

Pennsylvania’s Basic Education Funding Commission met Thursday and approved a report outlining a series of recommended fixes to the state’s public school funding system – a system that was ruled unconstitutional by the state’s Commonwealth Court last year. Another report, put forth by Republicans on the committee, failed to gain approval, underscoring the lingering policy differences that remain between Democrats and Republicans on how to address education funding in the state. 

The commission voted 8-7 to approve a report presented by state Rep. Mike Sturla, the Democratic co-chair of the commission, which makes eight recommendations for how lawmakers, the governor and the state Board of Education can improve education in the state. 

The report recommends establishing adequacy targets for the state’s schools, and calculates that $5.4 billion is needed to close the existing statewide adequacy gap and ensure schools have enough funding to meet student needs. (The report defines an adequacy gap as when a school district’s expenditures are below its calculated adequacy target.) It estimates that 77% of Pennsylvania school districts have an adequacy gap.

Other recommendations in the approved report include updating the Basic Education Funding formula and running increases of at least $200 million through the updated formula each year. The report also calls for investments in school facilities, student supports, and the state’s education workforce. 

The full report, which is known as Report #2 and approved by the commission with an 8-7 vote, can be read below.

With the exception of Democratic state Sen. Lindsey Williams, all Democrats on the commission, including three appointees from Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administration, voted to approve Report #2, while all Republicans voted against it.

In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Shapiro said the report offers a path forward for policymakers and public officials following the Commonwealth Court’s 2023 decision. 

“Last year, Commonwealth Court directed my Administration, legislative leaders, and education advocates to work together to ensure every child in Pennsylvania receives an adequate and equitable education,” Shapiro said Thursday in a statement. “The report adopted today by the Basic Education Funding Commission is a reflection of that work and of the consensus across Pennsylvania, and among leaders in both parties, that there is a real path forward to deliver a comprehensive solution on K-12 education in Pennsylvania.”

Prior to the successful vote on Report #2, the committee deadlocked on a separate report, Report #1, which was presented by Republican state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, the commission’s GOP co-chair. The commission failed to approve the report after Democrats voted against the report and three administration appointees abstained from the vote, bringing the final vote to 6-6-3. 

Report #1 also recommends updating the BEF formula and eliminating or softening how the formula determines poverty levels. The report also suggests that lawmakers consider how to support career and technical education initiatives, determine whether to provide cyber charter school reimbursements to school districts and encourage legislators to explore school choice programs, such as the Pennsylvania Award For Student Success program, which was a high-profile issue in last year’s state budget negotiations. 

The full report, which was not approved by the panel, can be viewed below. 

The GOP-backed report took a different approach to adequacy gaps, noting that the commission, which was divided over the two reports, could not reach a consensus on how to measure adequacy. “Unfortunately, the Commission could not reach a consensus on a model for measuring adequacy to recommend to the General Assembly given these circumstances. Therefore, it is up to the General Assembly to determine the appropriate adequacy model,” the report reads. 

Legislative leaders had differing views on how Thursday’s commission meeting played out. 

House Democratic leaders said in a joint statement Thursday that the report is a “groundbreaking” proposal that lawmakers must now work to implement. The report, the leaders said, “recommends significant, targeted investments that will level the playing field by ensuring education funding is adequately and equitably distributed, all while providing significant property tax relief to many Pennsylvanians who have been overburdened for too long.”

“The report is a compromise that thoughtfully includes input from lawmakers and the many important voices who shared their experiences and recommendations with the Basic Education Funding Commission,” the House Democratic leaders added. 

Republicans in the House took a different view of the meeting. House GOP Leader Bryan Cutler panned Report #2, calling it a “one-sided, Democrat-created report” that he said “will leave too many Pennsylvania students on the same road to nowhere instead of on a new path to prosperity.”

“Despite years of bipartisan support for historic amounts of increased funding for public education, including schools in rural and urban Pennsylvania suffering from the deepest poverty, our testing metrics show Pennsylvania’s students are not climbing out of this learning deficit fast enough,” Cutler added. 

Phillips-Hill said Thursday that the GOP report was thoughtful and forward-looking. 

“It is disappointing we could not reach consensus with all of the Democrats, but we believe the recommendations in this report will resonate with students, teachers, parents, and taxpayers without locking our state in for future massive tax hikes at a time when Pennsylvanians can least afford it,” Phillips-Hill said in a statement following the commission meeting.