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.