Pennsylvania's schools would receive billions more under the Democrats' plan passed by the state's House of Representatives

By MARK SCOLFORO – Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A Democratic-backed proposal to increase public school funding by billions in coming years and impose stricter rules on cyber charter schools passed the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Monday, a test of political will as lawmakers haggle over the state budget.

The bill is a response to a report released in January that said Pennsylvania underfunds public school districts by more than $5 billion annually and recommended a phased increase over several years. The bill would establish a new formula for distributing state education grants, but does not allocate any funding.

Five Republican representatives voted along with all Democrats for the measure, which passed by a vote of 107 to 94 and was sent to the state Senate.

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Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D-Montgomery) said the state's current system for distributing aid has failed and is unconstitutional. The measure, which will be phased in over seven years, would ultimately increase state aid by about $7 billion a year.

“We are doing what the court has told us to do, which is to provide an equal and fair public education to every child in this state,” Bradford said during the debate. “That is not policy, that is a constitutional requirement that this body has failed to meet for far too long.”

The measure would also impose a number of new regulations on cyber charter schools, including requiring public disclosure of budgets, taxes and reports to the state Department of Education. Per-pupil payments from state schools to cyber charter schools would be capped at $8,000 per year for students not in special education, a change expected to save public school districts hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Cyber ​​charter schools are independent public schools that provide instruction electronically, typically over the Internet.

Lancaster County Republican Leader Bryan Cutler called the bill a massive shift in education priorities that would limit school choice.

“Unless we address some of the systemic problems, more money alone will do little to help students stuck in schools during the crisis,” Cutler said.

It is unclear whether these measures, derived from the commission's report on basic education funding, will survive budget negotiations with the Republican-dominated Senate. The commission's report passed in January by a vote of 8 to 7, with all Republicans and one Democrat opposing it.

Republican legislative leaders urged districts to instead focus on instructional changes that could improve student success.

“More money, and lots of it, over the past decade or more has not improved student achievement,” said Republican Rep. Joe D'Orsie of York.

Supporters of a significant increase in spending for grades K-12 hope the timing is right, with a projected $14 billion state surplus available and the recent reversal of a key court ruling from last year that found Pennsylvania's system of funding public schools violates the constitutional rights of students in poorer districts. The state budget is due in three weeks.

Pennsylvania school districts that are considered underfunded are often growing faster, are disproportionately poor, or have high percentages of minority students. The result can be larger class sizes, underqualified teachers, and outdated buildings, textbooks, technology, and curricula.

In his annual budget address in February, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro called for a $1.1 billion, or 14 percent, increase in public school operations and education, with much of that funding being concentrated in the largest and poorer districts – including many with high proportions of minority students.

The state school funding system currently places a large burden on local taxpayers in the form of property taxes.

“If we don’t fully fund schools here, local government will be forced to raise taxes,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia).

Early last year, a state judge ruled that Pennsylvania's system of funding public schools was inadequate and violated students' constitutional rights. In her 800-page ruling, Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer found that the state was violating students' right to a “comprehensive, effective and timely” education.

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