Pennsylvania school allies criticize Shapiro’s budget plan

Lawyers for the districts that won a landmark school funding court case in Pennsylvania say that Gov. Josh Shapiro’s budget proposal falls short of the financial commitments that are needed to help the state’s poorest school districts.

Their criticism echoed reaction from a number of progressive groups and public school advocates that say the Democrat’s first chance at responding to the court ruling was lacking.

However, they acknowledged that the amount of money Shapiro has proposed for public schools is larger than almost any other year prior and that developing a new formula to distribute the funds will take time.

“This year’s proposed education budget does not do enough to meet the standard set by our state constitution and the urgency of this moment,” the lawyers, who are from the Education Law Center, the Public Interest Law Center and O’Melveny & Myers LLP, said in a joint statement. “The moment calls for more.”

A coalition of groups called Level Up said Shapiro should have set aside money just for the state’s poorest school districts to more rapidly close the gaps between Pennsylvania’s poor and wealthy districts.

“It’s just bizarre that Gov. Shapiro took off the table the only tool that is currently available to help remedy the constitutional problem with the funding system,” said Susan Spicka, a Level Up coalition member who is executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania.

A ruling last month in Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court found that the state’s roughly $34 billion school funding system violates the rights of students in the poorest school districts and directed Shapiro, lawmakers and the school districts that sued to develop a plan to fix it.

Any agreement will require approval from a politically divided Legislature, where Republicans control the Senate and Democrats hold a one-vote House majority.

Education advocates were hoping to see a significant “down payment” in this budget — at least $2 billion of the $4.6 billion advocates said is needed — plus an action plan that would fund schools based on what students need.

Shapiro has agreed that the current system of funding schools is “unacceptable,” and in his budget speech referred to the court decision as a “call to action” that goes beyond one branch of government.

He vowed to work with lawmakers to develop a funding system that does meet constitutional muster.

But he also suggested it will take time to agree on how much more money to inject into schools and to develop a new formula for distributing the money among the state’s 500 school districts.

Shapiro said Wednesday it should be viewed as a “two-step process” that includes the money he proposed in his new budget plan and then, next year, when he returns with his second budget plan.

“I’m hopeful, based on the reaction I’ve gotten from leading lawmakers — especially on the other side of the aisle — that they want to work together so that when I stand back up before lawmakers next year we’ll be able to propose not just historic funding, but also the proper formulas to drive this out so we can have equity in our system,” Shapiro said in an interview.

Democratic lawmakers and teachers’ unions supported Shapiro’s budget proposal and agreed that it could be viewed as a first step in a longer process.

Shapiro proposed an increase of about $567 million — or about 7% more — for daily school operations. It would devote another $100 million apiece — totaling $400 million — for mental health counselors, special education, anti-violence grants and removing environmental hazards in school buildings.

His budget also seeks to extend students’ access to free breakfast, which the previous administration continued after pandemic-era funding for the program ended. With $38.5 million, the budget aims to provide universal free breakfast all students, and will cover the cost of lunch for 22,000 eligible students.

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