PA House takes the first step toward enacting an equitable education funding plan into law

by Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
June 4, 2024

School districts in Pennsylvania would save more than $500 million a year with a proposal to set a statewide tuition rate for cyber charter schools, which is part of state House Democrats’ education plan.

The $8,000 per student cap is part of an 87-page education funding bill that will head to the state House for consideration. The House Education Committee approved the bill on a 14-11 vote Tuesday, along party lines, with all Republicans in opposition.

Although the bill is not technically part of the budget that the General Assembly must approve by June 30, it is included Gov. Josh Shapiro budget proposal to increase education funding to close the gap between the state’s wealthiest schools and those with fewer resources.

House Bill 2370 would enact a bipartisan commission’s recommendations into law to end inequities in Pennsylvania’s school financing system, which a Commonwealth judge ruled last year to be unconstitutional.

Representative Jesse Topper (R-Bedford), the top Republican on the Education Committee, warned that Democrats, who hold a majority in the House of Representatives, would struggle to get the Senate Republican leadership on board without bipartisan work to craft the education funding bill .

“If it’s going to be a centerpiece of the budget, there’s going to have to be agreement in more than just the House Democratic Party,” Topper said.

In addition to charter reforms for schools, including a ban on advertising and sponsorship using taxpayer dollars, HB 2370 would codify recommendations from the Basic Education Funding Commission, which adopted a report with recommendations on funding reforms in January.

Judge of the Commonwealth Court Renée Cohn Jubelirer ruled in February 2023 that the state’s reliance on property taxes to fund public education creates inequality among communities. She ordered the state Legislature to resolve the funding discrepancies.

The bill calls for the state to pay $5.1 billion over the next seven budgets to increase 371 school districts’ per-pupil spending to match that of the state’s most successful school districts, as measured by the state education department standards.

The bill would also provide an additional $200 million per year, distributed under a revised fair funding formula to all 500 school districts. And it would freeze school districts’ base funding — known as “hold harmless” — at 2023-2024 levels.

Finally, the bill would provide tax relief for 169 school districts that have adopted the highest property tax rates to obtain adequate funding. Those districts would share $1 billion in equity payments over seven years.

Representative Michael Sturla (D-Lancaster), committee co-chair, noted that the tax abatement element would allow some districts to keep taxes level for seven to 10 years.

“This is about helping local taxpayers, in addition to helping the children at our school,” Sturla said.

Representative Joe Ciresi (D-Montgomery) was the lead sponsor of cyber charter reform legislation that passed the House of Representatives last summer on a bipartisan vote of 122-81 but has not been considered in the Senate. That language is now part of the education funding law.

Critics of cyber charter schools argue that they rake in a windfall of taxpayer dollars because they have lower costs but receive the same tuition that school districts must pay to brick-and-mortar charter schools. This is compounded by the requirement that school districts pay tuition for special education students based on an average of total special education costs, rather than on a student’s individualized needs.

Anne Clark, CEO of the PA Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said she rejects the common claim that cyber charter schools have lower operating costs than traditional schools. Faculty costs are comparable and technical support and infrastructure costs are higher.

“It seems foolish and counterproductive to cut back on what we are trying to do as a state at a time when we are trying to improve our educational and economic outcomes,” Clark said.

Last month, the public education organization Education Voters of Pennsylvania released a report citing the net assets of the four largest cyber charter organizations worth a combined $486 million. The group also said public records requests show more than $21 million was spent on advertising.

Setting cyber charter tuition at $8,000 per student would save Pennsylvania school districts $530 million annually, Ciresi said. The bill would set special education tuition for cyber charter students at 1.64 times regular education tuition, or $13,120. Tuition rates would be reviewed every three years.

Ciresi said his legislation would correct a lack of transparency in cyber charter organizations.

“When we look at our cyber, we don’t have any school boards that are elected. We do not have gatherings that are held in a public place,” he said. “We can’t even listen to what’s going on or comment on it. We don’t have to account for where the money goes.”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. If you have any questions, please contact editor Kim Lyons: [email protected]. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Tweet.

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