(The Center Square) – Democrats in Harrisburg are proposing “the largest and most equitable education budget in Pennsylvania history.”
Democrats in the General Assembly presented a $3.75 billion education spending plan that would leverage higher than anticipated tax revenues and American Rescue Plan Act funds to “address generational inequality, crumbling school infrastructure and staffing problems exacerbated by the pandemic,” according to a statement.
“Pennsylvania’s insufficient and unequal school system was put under a harsh spotlight by the pandemic, putting in focus the struggles faced by students, parents and teachers in underfunded districts,” Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said. “We now have a historic opportunity to correct that legacy and provide every student with the resources and opportunities they deserve.”
The Democrats’ “Full Funding Plan,” which was unveiled Monday, would put $1.1 billion in the commonwealth’s Fair Funding Formula, $750 million toward the “Level UP” program to help 200 districts with “the most inequitable funding,” $1.1 billion toward remediating public schools, $250 million toward staffing, $125 million to mental health programs and $100 million in academic supports.
Hughes, minority chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, pointed to recent revenue estimates that show the 2021-22 general fund will collect more than $3 billion more in taxes than previously projected, as well as nearly $2.2 billion in one-time American Rescue Plan funds available to fund the plan.
“We are confident in the sustainability of this plan because Pennsylvania is experiencing an unprecedented revenue surplus due to a huge economic turnaround aided by federal investments,” Hughes said. “There can be no more excuses for toxic schools and inequality of opportunity. We are sitting on the largest pool of unspent funds in Pennsylvania history.”
Democrats contend Pennsylvania will end the fiscal year with a balance of well over $6 billion, money they argue is an opportunity to address an “adequacy gap” in schools that’s currently at the center of an ongoing public school funding lawsuit.
“The time is now. The time is right,” Sen. Jay Costa, D-Pittsburgh, said. “The resources are there, and it’s incumbent upon all of us to really make a significant statement on the steps we need to take to adequately fund public education.”
“We have a historic surplus resulting in billions of dollars in revenue, which represents opportunity. We also have the need to address our historically and chronically underfunded public schools. We can make a significant down payment and finally take serious steps towards closing the adequacy gap for our students. This type of investment has a transformative effect when we lessen the burden placed on local taxpayers and enable the true economic growth needed to revitalize communities.”
Erica Clayton Wright, spokesperson for the House Republican caucus, told NPR the Democrats’ education spending plan is “more of the same old, same old.”
“The Senate Democrats proposal … is nothing more than a political maneuver to turn a one-time spend into a reoccurring funding stream,” she said. “Republicans in the General Assembly have worked in a bipartisan manner to make historic investments in education. We will continue to try and work better together with our colleagues on the other side of the aisle to consider realistic and beneficial funding that helps prepare Pennsylvania’s future workforce.”
At a news conference announcing a $250 million aid package for hospitals and health care workers last week, Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patrick Browne, R-Lehigh, said the commonwealth’s finances are expected to achieve fiscal balance by 2024, countering claims from Democrats that the commonwealth is sitting on billions in extra funds.
“I think it’s important … to keep this in context of our overall financial position,” Browne said. “The governor is going to be putting his budget in front of us in the coming weeks. He is stating that … the general fund surplus in the range of $8 billion. We respectfully disagree with that.
“If you take this $250 million and flow it through our financial position through the end of the stimulus period – December 2024 – with reasonable projections on revenue, mandatory spending, and a historic estimate on how much we would put in education, we achieve fiscal balance at the end of the stimulus period,” he said. “We don’t have $8 billion above what we’ve already committed to.”
This article was republished with permission from The Center Square.
Victor Skinner writes for The Center Square.