Shapiro’s first budget boosts school spending but fails to direct more to districts like Philadelphia

Sunlight shines on the Capitol dome in Harrisburg, Penn., with a blue sky in the background.
The Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg. On March 7, Gov. Josh Shapiro proposed an education spending plan that would increase basic aid to schools by nearly $800 million in next year’s budget. Shapiro, a Democrat in his first year as governor, has also proposed additional aid to support students’ mental health, school meals, school safety, and more. (Richard T. Nowitz / Getty Images)

Gov. Josh Shapiro proposed increasing funding for K-12 schools in Pennsylvania by more than $1 billion on Tuesday, including a net $567 million hike in Basic Education Funding, the biggest single source of state money for districts. 

At the same time, Shapiro would end a special funding category introduced by Gov. Tom Wolf that directs a higher share of Basic Education funding to the 100 districts (out of 500 in the state) with the lowest spending per pupil, including Philadelphia. 

That move has upset some education and children advocacy groups, who said abandoning the “Level Up” initiative  for the 100 districts would hurt children who need significant help from schools.

Shapiro’s first budget comes as the state has a record surplus, and looks to respond to last month’s ruling from Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer that the state’s system of funding education is unconstitutional because it denies students in poorer districts a “thorough and efficient” education. 

“That ruling was a call to action. Literally,” Shapiro said in his first budget address. “Her remedy was for us to get around the table and come up with a solution.”

Last year, $225 million in “Level Up” funding went to those 100 districts with the lowest per-pupil spending figures, and that amount was added to the overall basic education line item. This year, Shapiro increased the Basic Education Funding line by $796 million, but with the elimination of Level Up, the total increase comes to $567 million or 7.8 percent.  

The governor’s communication office confirmed Wednesday that there was no additional funding added to Level Up in his proposed 23-24 budget. But the Pennsylvania school code now requires $225 million to be set aside to the 100 districts with the lowest per pupil spending.

But children’s and education advocates said that Shapiro’s new investments are not enough, and expressed pointed criticisms at his Level Up plans. 

Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters PA, said she was puzzled because Level Up had “earned strong bipartisan support during the past two legislative sessions.” 

“This well-recognized supplement helps to close the funding gaps that hurt our most vulnerable students and are at the heart of Pennsylvania’s unconstitutional school funding system,” Spicka said.

And the Education Law Center,  Public Interest Law Center, and the private law firm O’Melveny & Myers, which are representing the plaintiffs in the school funding case that led to Jubelirer’s February ruling, noted in a statement that Shapiro’s proposed increases “are only pegged to keep school funding on pace with inflation” and don’t meet schools’ present needs.

Along with a rare budget surplus, the need to respond to the ruling presents him and the General Assembly with “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to do right by our kids, to fund our schools, and to empower parents to put their kids in the best position for them to succeed,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro said he was determined to repay the voters’ trust in him by showing them that “government can be a positive, productive force for good.” 

Shapiro also sent a message Tuesday to Republican legislative leaders who were on the losing end of Jubelirer’s decision that he hoped they would not appeal her ruling. 

GOP lawmakers had argued during the four-month trial that the current system met constitutional requirements despite the spending disparities, citing the preeminence of local control in matters around education.

“While theoretically there’s still time left to file an appeal, all indications are that Judge Jubelirer’s ruling will stand,” Shapiro said. “And that means we are all acknowledging that the court has ordered us to come to the table and come up with a better system, one that passes constitutional muster.” 

Shapiro, a Democrat, said he had already held meetings with Republican leaders about education funding. The GOP controls the Senate, while Democrats control the House.

“I think it’s fair to report that we’re all prepared to work together to find a comprehensive solution,” he said. 

He acknowledged that “this is not a simple task,” and that the funding system “cannot be fixed overnight.”

Last week, Democratic Sen. Vincent Hughes proposed an increase in education spending of nearly $3.2 billion.  

Early education, nutrition, and special education get increases

In addition to his plans for Basic Education and Level Up funding, Shapiro also proposed a $66.7 million additional investment in Child Care Works, and $33 million more in Pre-K Counts. Both programs are targeted toward early childhood education. These programs help families maintain employment and give children “a ladder up,” he said. 

But Mai Miksic, the early childhood coordinator for the advocacy group Children First, said that Child Care Works alone needs $430 million to raise wages, broaden access, and increase the rate of reimbursement for providers. For Pre-K Counts, Miksic said advocates sought a $100 million increase, and noted that 60% of eligible families don’t have access. 

Shapiro’s proposals “are just a step forward,” she said.

The governor called for a $500 million investment over five years for additional mental health counselors and other on-site services for students. 

“Our kids need help,” he said. “I’ve been to their schools.I’ve asked these students what they need  and they’re very clear. Students want someone who can help them. They want people to talk to.”

The governor’s budget also earmarks $100 million more to give free breakfast to every child in public schools.

“It shouldn’t be okay to anybody here … that people are going to bed without a meal. We need to have that conversation. We need to feed our kids,” Shapiro said. 

In addition, Shapiro wants to add $100 million for special education,  $100 million for a matching grant program for school building repair and construction, and $100 million for a school safety program that was started under Wolf.

He also wants to beef up career and technical education, and expand apprenticeships, saying that the state “can create a pipeline from the classroom to the workforce.” 

The state teachers’ unions offered cautious support for Shapiro’s budget. 

Pennsylvania State Education Association President Rich Askey said in a statement the union “would need time to review the details of Shapiro’s plan,” but that the governor was “right to say that we need to be thoughtful and deliberative” about rebuilding the school funding system, “but aggressive at the same time.”

“We’ve been grappling with problems related to Pennsylvania’s school funding system for a generation,” Askey said. “We’re not going to solve this problem overnight, but we must solve it. We need to do it soon, but we also need to do it right.”

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, called it “a thoughtful budget address that outlines a host of investments in critical resources.”

Correction: This story has been corrected to include the accurate Basic Education Funding increase in Gov. Josh Shapiro’s budget. The correct figure is $567 million. The headline was also updated.

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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