The Daily Press

Shapiro, Pa. lawmakers face multibilli­on-dollar budget question after major school funding ruling

- By Stephen Caruso

HARRISBURG — A long-awaited ruling on how Pennsylvan­ia funds its public schools could have a seismic impact on state finances in the coming years as policymake­rs face a multibilli­on-dollar funding disparity.

A Commonweal­th Court judge ruled Tuesday that Pennsylvan­ia’s school funding system so badly underfunds poor districts that it violates the state constituti­on.

An appeal to the state Supreme Court is possible. But should the ruling stand, new Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro and the divided Pennsylvan­ia legislatur­e will be faced with an enormous challenge with no prescribed solution. So far, lawmakers are saying little about what lies ahead.

In her nearly 800page decision, Commonweal­th Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer agreed with the central complaint in a lawsuit that advocates, parents, and six school districts filed eight years ago.

The way Pennsylvan­ia funds public schools creates a reality in which “students attending low wealth districts are being deprived of equal protection of law,” Jubelirer wrote.

Pennsylvan­ia uses two formulas to decide how much state money to send to each school district, one of which is generally seen as outdated and inequitabl­e. Districts are then left to pad out much of their budgets through property taxes, which vary widely and tend to disproport­ionately burden poor areas.

“All witnesses agree that every child can learn,” wrote Jubelirer, who was elected as a Republican. “It is now the obligation of the Legislatur­e, Executive Branch, and educators, to make the constituti­onal promise a reality in this Commonweal­th.”

Jubelirer’s ruling does not lay out an exact remedy. Changes, Jubelirer wrote, do not need to be “entirely financial. The options for reform are virtually limitless.”

Still, policymake­rs, attorneys in the case, and education experts agree that money will be a major part of the solution.

Meeting this obligation will be an early challenge for Shapiro and for the state legislatur­e, which is split between the Democratic-controlled state House and Republican­controlled state Senate.

In a statement Tuesday, Shapiro said he believes “every child in Pennsylvan­ia should have access to a highqualit­y education.” His office did not say if it plans to appeal, and Shapiro’s statement avoided specific promises or timelines.

As attorney general, Shapiro filed a brief supporting the case amid his gubernator­ial run in spring 2022, arguing that the evidence “all points to the unmistakab­le conclusion that the General Assembly has not lived up to its obligation to provide for the maintenanc­e and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.”

In statements, legislativ­e leaders in both chambers also avoided specifics for the most part, and instead cautioned that they were reviewing the ruling.

“We can’t undo the years of insufficie­nt funding, but as a result of this historic decision the future is brighter for our students and our communitie­s,” state House Democrats said in a statement.

State Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana) said his caucus is “committed to prioritizi­ng education empowermen­t and access for students across Pennsylvan­ia, as is evidenced by a historic level of investment in public education” in the most recent budget.

It’s true that, over the past decade, Penn

sylvania has increased basic education funding by billions of dollars. But little of that new money is being targeted at districts with growing enrollment that need it the most.

Pennsylvan­ia funnels most of its basic education dollars — which reached $7.6 billion last year — to districts based on a formula that uses enrollment numbers from the early 1990s. This “hold harmless” approach guarantees districts won’t lose funding even if enrollment has declined.

A newer formula, passed in 2016 under former Gov. Tom Wolf, considers factors like how many students are learning English or experienci­ng poverty when doling out cash. But only new funding is sent through the formula — about 20% of the total at the moment.

Since 2021, the state has also sent additional dollars to the 100 poorest school districts through a program envisioned to provide extra funding for “the school districts that need it the most,” as state Rep. Mike Schlossber­g (D., Lehigh) put it when the program was first created.

In her ruling, Jubelierer took those programs, as well as a previous aborted effort by the legislatur­e to set a statewide standard cost per student, as evidence that policymake­rs knew of “the existence of inadequate education funding in low wealth districts.”

Few advocates or policymake­rs know exactly how much money will be needed to fill the gap.

One estimate, prepared for Jubelierer on behalf of the plaintiffs, found that an additional $4.6 billion is needed to make up funding shortfalls. That report built off an 18-yearold legislativ­e study, leading Jubelirer to question its relevance. Still, she accepted “the overarchin­g principle that more equitable resources, whether monetary or otherwise, are needed.”

Donna Cooper, a former top policy advisor to Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell who now advocates for increased education funding, said at least $3 billion in new spending will be needed to meet the court’s order.

To achieve that in short order, Cooper said “the commonweal­th is likely to need new sources of revenue.” Possibilit­ies include closing tax loopholes, increasing the personal income tax (Pennsylvan­ia has among the lowest in the country), or taxing natural gas drillers per the amount of gas they extract rather than per wells drilled.

“The opinion provides enough clarity on the problem and why we need to act. So then the question is, is there political will?” Cooper said.

The lawsuit, Cooper said, showed how systemic underfundi­ng has hurt rural, suburban, and urban schools across the commonweal­th — from teacher vacancies to deferred repairs to shrinking after-school programs.

By Cooper’s count, there are at least 100 districts across the state that Jubelirer’s decision would label as unconstitu­tionally underfunde­d.

“They are in every Senate district and nearly every House district … so it’s not in the interest of their own legislativ­e districts to dig in and either appeal or not act,” she said.

But getting to such an agreement could take time, said Stan Saylor, a former Republican state lawmaker who chaired the Appropriat­ions Committee.

Saylor, a Harrisburg veteran who oversaw GOP budget negotiatio­ns and lost a primary to a conservati­ve challenger last year, said he expected the conversati­on to bleed into coming budget talks, but “I don’t see it getting resolved” by June.

“I’d say you’re looking at maybe the end of the year, maybe next year,” Saylor said.

Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, a staff attorney with the Philadelph­iabased Public Interest Law Center who helped argue the case, said lawmakers’ “obligation to actually fix the system starts now,” regardless of an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

He said he expects “a significan­t down payment” this year.

“We are going to assume that the General Assembly is going to follow the law, follow the court’s opinion, and provide all kids the resources they deserve,” Urevick-Ackelsberg said. “We will be back in court to enforce whatever we need to, to ensure they do so.”

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