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HARRISBURG – As time is running out for a July 1 state budget deadline, education funding is taking a prominent position in the upcoming talks.
A pair of late-arriving Republican education bills in the state Senate, designed to make it easier to use tax money to pay for private school tuition, is less of a real proposition than the opening salvo budget negotiations, a local legislator and member of the House education committee. said Tuesday.
âI think this is more of a negotiating tactic,â said State Representative Joe Ciresi, D-146th Dist., Former Spring-Ford school board member and committee member for the Spring-Ford. House education, about the two fast-track bills. .
âThe governor is not supporting them and the Democrats will not vote for them and they have not even been sent to the House yet,â where they would be routed via the House Education Committee, Ciresi said.
The timing of bills is important in the budget calendar and also comes as Governor Wolf and supporters of equitable funding have crisscrossed the state, pushing a Ciresi-sponsored charter school funding reform bill. .
In fact, another such rally is scheduled for Thursday at 3 p.m. at Perkiomen Valley High School.
The first bill passed by the Senate Committee on Education, along partisan lines, is Senate Bill 1, a bill on the reform of charter schools which:
- Increases the transparency of charter schools;
- Does not address the increasingly onerous tuition funding formula for charter schools;
- Remove charter school licensing authority from school boards and give it to a state licensing board to which the governor would make only one appointment;
- And makes automatic the increase in the amount of money companies can donate to private schools for equivalent tax relief.
It is nominated by Lancaster County Senator Scott Martin, R-13th Dist., Who is also chair of the Senate Education Committee.
The second bill, Senate Bill 733, creates the Education Opportunity Account Scholarship (EOAS) program, which critics say is an attempt to establish a school voucher system in Pennsylvania.
He is sponsored by Blair County Republican Judy Ward, R-30th Dist., Who is the Deputy Chair of the Senate Education Committee.
Supporters say the scholarships help poorer families with children “trapped in failing public schools” find an alternative. Critics say the state is forgoing tax revenue in order to fund private schools for wealthy and middle-income families who have other quality options, according to a WHYY report.
The WHYY report, based on 2017-2018 data, found “obscure evidence to support both claims.” Journalists examined 151 private schools that run their own tax credit voucher programs
“Of those schools, 57 – more than a third – reported not enrolling any low-income students or said they could not determine how many low-income students they had. 15 other schools told the State that less than five percent of their student body was in low income, âaccording to the report.
âMany of these schools are located in the wealthier suburbs of the state, where students have access to some of Pennsylvania’s top-rated public schools,â they found.
Neither the office of the two local senators, Katie Muth, D-44th Dist., Nor Bob Mensch, R-24th Dist., Responded Tuesday afternoon to emails seeking comment and / or their voting intentions on the two. law projects.
At least one of the bills would also provide for one of the legislative priorities sought by the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, a lobby group that spoke out against the kind of reforms proposed in Ciresi’s bill and reiterated by Governor Tom Wolf during his May 19 visit to a rally at Pottstown High School.
Group CEO Lenny McAllister spoke to MediaNews Group for an hour on Friday and said the coalition opposed the centerpiece of Ciresi’s reform bill which calls for the creation of a rate statewide tuition for charter cyber schools.
Currently, the tuition fees for charter cyber schools are determined by the amount a sending district spends “per student.” This money, according to McAllister, should follow the student to the charter cyber school attended, rather than a cyber school tuition fee based on the actual costs of running the program.
Over the past five years, charter school enrollments statewide have increased 10%, but payments to charter schools have increased 47%. This is partly due to the self-escalating effect of charter school tuition fees – as tuition increases, districts’ ‘per student spending’ increases, thus increasing the next fee payment. of schooling.
But the main driver of the increase in spending per student is a result of payments from the state pension system which have increased by the millions for every school district in recent years as a result of the General Assembly’s decision to ” increase benefit payments – including to own members – while reducing required contributions.
This strategy, based on the assumption that the stock market would continue to rise indefinitely, failed spectacularly in 2009 with the collapse of the housing bubble, and taxpayers in local school districts have since made up for these losses.
These retirement payments, which have little to do with the direct education of an individual student, are nonetheless part of a district’s “cost per student” and therefore part of the tuition fees of charter schools and one. of the main engines of its meteoric rise.
Some charter schools also participate in the payment of these retirement costs as an increasing number of their teachers are unionizing. In fact, teachers at Pennsylvania’s largest school, the PA Cyber ââCharter School, recently voted to join the Pennsylvania State Education Association teachers’ union.
But despite his opposition to a statewide tuition rate for the state’s largest charter school, McAllister confirmed that the school will negotiate a single statewide salary scale. for its teachers.
Ultimately, Ciresi said, the two bills are more important in spelling out the steps Republicans will take in closed-door budget negotiations with Governor Wolf’s administration than the bills Senate Republicans are hoping for. be adopted by the House and signed by the Governor.
“It’s ridiculous, we have three weeks to prepare a budget and the House education committee hasn’t even scheduled a meeting,” he said.
More ridiculous, Ciresi said, is the attempt to divert more funds away from traditional public school districts as the state now faces one of the biggest budget surpluses in history and has the best way in years to fully fund public education through equitable state funding. formula.
most recent estimates put the total surplus at over $ 3 billion and Ciresi argues that it should be used to “finally properly fund public education in Pennsylvania.”
Five years ago, Pennsylvania adopted a “fair funding formula” which, like most other states, is designed to “level the playing field” for poorer school districts to ensure they have the same type of resources available to the richest.
But the state has never channeled all of its education funding through this formula and only about 10 percent is distributed that way. The surplus, Ciresi argued after a fair fundraising rally in Harrisburg on Tuesday, allows for full fair funding.
The state’s outdated process for funding schools is based on student enrollment in 1992, ignoring changes in student numbers or the school district’s current costs today, according to a press release. from Wolf’s office released Tuesday.
This forces growing school districts in urban, suburban, and rural communities to compensate for state underfunding by increasing property taxes, thereby increasing the burden on homeowners and businesses.
âIt’s not just towns like Pottstown that certainly need it, but other districts like Spring-Ford, Perkiomen Valley and Methacton, they are all underfunded on the formula,â he said.
âHere we have the opportunity to bring education funding into the 21st century – where it belongs,â said Wolf. âTo do this, we need to manage all current state funding for basic education through the equitable funding formula, and we need to make sure that no school district loses a single dollar of public funding because of this adjustment. “