Pennsylvania Inches Toward Budget and Appropriations—for Last Year

At the end of March, Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf allowed last year’s budget to become law without his signature.  While it would seem that the final arrival in late March of a state budget for the ongoing fiscal year that will end on June 30 would resolve a mass of problems for Pennsylvania’s schools, it isn’t going to be so easy.  In Pennsylvania a fight is brewing over what is called “the fiscal code” that will determine the distribution of the education dollars in the state budget.  The legislature had come up with a bipartisan proposal, but Wolf vetoed the legislature’s proposed fiscal code, believing that it fails to remedy some of the biggest problems—notably the funding crisis in the School District of Philadelphia.  And the amount in the budget is also far less than is needed by school districts across the state.

Here is Kevin McCorry’s explanation for Newsworks: “On Tuesday (April 5, 2016), Wolf released details of his ‘restoration’ funding formula to the protest of leading Republican state lawmakers.  Although Wolf allowed the state budget as passed by the Republican-controlled legislature to become law without his signature in late March, he vetoed the fiscal code code bill which, in part, acted as a roadmap for how new education funding should be apportioned… Wolf and other Democratic leaders argue that districts should first be made whole from cuts that occurred when the legislature agreed to Gov. Tom Corbett’s 2011 austerity plan that coincided with the expiration of federal stimulus dollars.”  Corbett, a proponent of state tax cuts and austerity budgeting, devastated state support for school districts when he slashed $1.1 billion out of the public education budget.

Wolf says he does not oppose the legislature’s fiscal code distribution formula, but before it is implemented, some of the deepest cuts under Corbett must be restored.  On Tuesday, Jan Murphy of the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported, “Wolf said he is carrying through on his promise to restore funding that was cut during the Corbett years and to push for a fairer funding formula.  He said the bipartisan-backed formula that lawmakers wanted to see used—and he supports—‘cannot truly be fair unless the cuts are fully restored. Currently, only 4 percent of districts have seen their funding restored to 2010-2011 levels and we are currently over $370 million short from fully restoring the cuts.’ ”

There is $50 million of new money for schools in the budget passed by the legislature in late March.  On Tuesday, according to Murphy, “Wolf announced he planned to distribute the additional $50 million set aside in the March budget for basic education this way,

  • $25 million is being allocated for the restoration of the charter school reimbursement program.
  • $20 million is being allocated to continue to restore cuts made in 2011-2012.
  • $5 million is being allocated through the new basic aid education fair funding formula.”

Wolf had in December of 2015 already signed a partial budget that restored $150 million to schools.  Overall if Wolf has his way, according to McCorry of Newsworks, Philadelphia will see $76.8 million in additional state funds for the 2015-16 school year, “a 7.55 percent increase over last year.” McCorry adds, “Of the $5 million that Wolf plans to direct through the new student-weighted funding formula—which accounts for measures such as concentration of poverty, number of English language learners, and district geographic sparcity—Philadelphia looks to get 23 percent of the sum.”  He notes that Philadelphia serves 12 percent of the state’s students.

McCorry’s coverage focuses on Philadelphia, but the Corbett-created school funding debacle in Pennsylvania is far more widespread. Smaller cities like Reading and Allentown are struggling to provide adequate services for children, and the school funding crisis is also affecting poor rural school districts.

Several of these school districts filed a lawsuit, William Penn School District v. State, in November of 2014 that declares the state’s school funding system fails to meet the “thorough and efficient” and equal protection clauses in Pennsylvania’s constitution.  The state has requested that the case be dismissed based on precedents when similar school funding lawsuits were previously brought in Pennsylvania.  While a lower court did dismiss the William Penn School District case, plaintiffs and advocates filed an amicus brief last September, simply to ask that plaintiffs be granted the right to present their case and evidence to the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear an appeal of the case this spring.  Last September, David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center noted: “Pennsylvania school funding is among the most unfair in the nation. The current protracted standoff over the state budget makes it even more imperative to give these school children their day in court.”

Despite the election in 2014 of a Democratic governor who ran on platform of correcting the school funding shortfalls imposed by Corbett and his all-Republican legislature, it will very likely take years to undo the devastation to Pennsylvania’s public schools, where, as reported in January by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Pennsylvania’s general funding per student (in inflation-adjusted dollars) remains 13.2 percent lower than before the Great Recession in 2008.

Pennsylvania School Funding War Drags On

Pennsylvania doesn’t yet have a state budget, something the state is required to have in place on June 30. A protracted, years-long, and politically contentious fight about inadequate and grossly inequitably distributed school funding is a primary reason for the impasse.

A Republican-dominated state legislature has refused to compromise with the new Democratic governor on a plan that would fund the government and restore desperately needed money for the public schools.  Former governor, Tom Corbett, who ripped more than a billion dollars out of the state budget for public schools, was soundly defeated last November.  But Governor Tom Wolf has not been able to move Corbett’s allies in the legislature to do the right thing for Pennsylvania’s children.  Wolf defeated Corbett last November in large part due to a statewide school funding crisis created by Corbett’s tax cuts.  Corbett and the legislature had pretended to help the School District of Philadelphia—already devastated by school closures and staff layoffs—to survive by passing enabling legislation to permit Philadelphia to enact a cigarette tax on its own residents, a local sin tax dedicated for the public schools.

Last Thursday the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer supported Governor Tom Wolf’s pledge to veto a stopgap, temporary budget presented to him by the legislature on September 18: “Republican legislators have put their old, irresponsible fiscal plan in a new wrapper and called it a stopgap budget.  While their plan promises to fund the state until November, it also threatens to delay sincere negotiations, allowing the state’s elected officials—already nearly three months late—to go that much longer without performing one of their most basic duties: passing a budget.  The Democratic governor has already rightly rejected the legislature’s proposal, which would perpetuate Harrisburg’s habit of leaving bills unpaid, relying on one-time gimmicks, and raiding dedicated funds.  Nor would it adequately fund schools or force the shale-gas industry to shoulder its share of the tax burden at long last.”

Then there is the lawsuit filed by plaintiffs across Pennsylvania that the state’s school funding system fails to meet the “thorough and efficient” and equal protection clauses in Pennsylvania’s constitution—the same language to protect adequate and equitably distributed funding that appears in many state constitutions.  The lawsuit, William Penn School District v. State was filed in November of 2014.  The state has requested that the case be dismissed based on precedents when similar school funding lawsuits were previously brought in Pennsylvania.  While a lower court did dismiss the William Penn School District case, plaintiffs and advocates who filed an amicus brief on their behalf last week, simply ask that plaintiffs be granted the right to present their case and evidence to the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear an appeal of the case early in 2016.

Derek Black explains the history of the case at the Law Professors Blog Network: “Last fall, plaintiffs filed suit against Pennsylvania, arguing that education is a fundamental right under the state constitution and that the state has violated that right by repeatedly failing to ensure adequate education resources.  That claim moved through the trial court quickly and is now before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Pennsylvania is one of the few states that has yet to fully entertain these issues, having dismissed school funding cases in the past as non-justiciable. Something tells me that this time might be different. As discussed several times on this blog over the past few years, the state has been so derelict in its obligations to its students that its action could be declared unconstitutional under any minimal and deferential standard one might imagine.”

The amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs was filed last week by the national Education Law Center and a number of organizations in Pennsylvania that include Education Matters in the Cumberland Valley, Education Voters of Pennsylvania, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, the Pennsylvania Association of School Nurses and Practitioners, Public Citizens for Children and Youth, and Yinzercation.

David Sciarra, Executive Director of the national Education Law Center commented: “Pennsylvania school funding is among the most unfair in the nation, shortchanging opportunity for public school children across the state.  The current protracted standoff over the state budget makes it even more imperative to give these school children their day in court.”

This blog has covered Pennsylvania’s school funding morass on a number of occasions.  For example, see here and here.