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Gov. Shapiro, Lehigh Valley lawmakers acknowledge political divisions, outstanding education funding

Sara Schneider
An empty school classroom.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Education funding is one piece of unfinished business state lawmakers need to take up, Gov. Josh Shapiro said recently.

Speaking at the Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon days before Thanksgiving, Shapiro said he hopes his next budget proposal will include a new school funding formula created with bipartisan support and additional education dollars.

He also acknowledged he’s dealing with a politically divided General Assembly. After the results of November’s election, Pennsylvania is the only state in the U.S. where Republicans and Democrats each control one chamber of the state Legislature. The Republicans control the Senate and the Democrats command the House by a single vote.

Commonwealth Court in February issued a historic ruling saying the state was unconstitutionally underfunding its poorest public schools. The Basic Education Funding Commission, made up of members from both political parties, just finished holding a series of hearings taking testimony from educators, advocates and experts on how to address state funding inequities and is expected to issue a report on recommended fixes soon. Some advocates say it could cost more than $6 billion for poorer districts to reach parity with wealthier districts, but Republican lawmakers are resisting approving billions of dollars.

“I've asked them to finish their work by around January 1, so that I can announce in my next budget, both a formula that enjoys bipartisan support, as well as increased funding in public education,” Shapiro said.

House Education Committee Chairman Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, who is a member of the BEF Commission, told LehighValleyNews.com recently the discussions around producing a report have been productive.

“Between the four caucuses and the governor's office, I think the numbers have largely been working in good faith with one another,” Schweyer said. “Emotional at times and certainly coming at it from our various perspectives, but I believe everybody has been working in a very honest and very hard, you know, very concerted manner.”

State Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton/Lehigh, pointed out funding disparities when lawmakers passed an omnibus school code bill through both chambers earlier this month. The Democrat, whose district includes the Bethlehem Area and Easton Area school districts, said the state’s basic education funding formula shorts BASD by $63 million and Easton has a deficit of about $11.5 million.

Boscola also highlighted in her emailed news release that the code legislation also did not contain $100 million in Level Up funding, the supplemental dollars given to the state’s 100 poorest school districts. Bethlehem Area and Allentown School districts in are eligible for Level Up, but the money has been held up in a partisan fight over a Senate Republican proposal to give $100 million to families for private tuition scholarships.

“So, this year, Bethlehem Area School District will have a $1.6-million-dollar hole in its budget because Level-Up was not funded,” Boscola said in the statement.

“It’s likely now the local property owners of the school district will be asked to make up the difference."
State Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton

During Shapiro’s appearance at the Pennsylvania Press Club, he signaled his continued support for private tuition scholarships. The debate over school choice earlier this year led to a months' long budget impasse as the governor worked with Senate Republicans to pass school vouchers and then line-item vetoed them to win back support on the budget from Democrats.

Schweyer said the House continues to pass legislation with Level Up funding in it, but the Senate won’t approve the money to schools. Allentown School District, which Schweyer represents, is currently calculated to get about $6.2 million in Level Up dollars. He said he believes ASD and several other school districts statewide didn’t add Level Up into the budget it passed over the summer because of the state budget impasse.

“I think most school district administrators are getting, understandably, frustrated with the lack of predictability from Harrisburg,” Schweyer said. “And our overall inability to just, you know, do what we're supposed to be doing.”

Shapiro’s next budget plan is expected in early February.