Pa. budget deal with education funding boost hinged on compromise, avoiding controversy

    Pennsylvania Sen. Vincent Hughes (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

    Pennsylvania Sen. Vincent Hughes (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

    Deal hashed out only 13 days overdue.

    The dust has settled on the 2016-17 Pennsylvania budget, and, as usual, debates over education funding and policy dominated much of the negotiations.

    Last year this time, Democrats and Republicans were still miles apart on budget talks, and it took until March to come to resolution.

    This year, a final deal was hashed out a mere 13 days late.

    So how, in sharply divided government, do you get a deal done — almost on time?

    By compromising, and punting on the most controversial elements.

    “We made marginal gains this year, but it’s progress nonetheless,” said Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, minority chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We don’t seem to have the capacity to address major issues and come up with very significant solutions. We’re inching along.”

    Gov. Tom Wolf had initially sought a $577 million boost to the state’s main pot of public school cash this year, but he was willing to settle for $200 million to avoid another fight over proposals to hike sales or income taxes.

    In the end, boosts were also made to special education ($20 million), early-childhood education ($30 million) and higher education ($40 million).

    State Education Secretary Pedro Rivera says that’s good enough for now — even if it doesn’t yet restore the cuts that occurred in 2010-11 after federal stimulus funds dried up.

    “When you think of the fact that the General Assembly and the governor were able to find a way to increase education as significantly as it has, I think it’s a good budget for us to have this year,” said Rivera.

    Among the ways the state plans to pay those tabs is by hiking the cigarette tax and expanding gambling options.

    A winning formula

    One bright spot in this year’s education funding boost is that it will all go through the state’s new student-weighted formula — meaning more money will go to the districts that need it most.

    But to give perspective, of a $5.8 billion pot of state aid, now just $352 million will go through the formula, which works out to about 6 percent.

    Several plans emerged to help remedy districts especially hurt over the past few decades by the lack of a formula.

    State Sen. Sean Wiley, D-Erie, forwarded a bill that would have given a one-time $150 million infusion to a handful of districts deemed by the formula’s calculations to have been especially shortchanged.

    Throughout this budget season, Erie Public Schools teetered on the edge of insolvency.

    “What we need now is immediate funding to address the immediate concerns that we have,” he said.

    But this and other proposals failed to garner serious consideration.

    Lawmakers, though, did secure an extra $10 million for distressed districts. About $4 million will go to Erie, which will also enter the state’s fiscal “watch” status. The rest of the emergency funding will be split between among a few districts to be determined at the Wolf administration’s discretion.

    White whales, grand bargains

    A few other white whales remain at large. The state’s nearly 20-year-old charter law, widely considered outdated, was kept intact.

    A revision that traditional advocates felt was too charter-friendly had serious momentum going into the final days of larger negotiations.

    Lawmakers decided to put it on the shelf so as not to threaten the fragile coalition of votes that got the revenue deal across the finish line.

    “Nobody wanted to hold up a final budget product to wait for those differences ironed out,” said House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana.

    Key to pushing the bill to the sidelines was advocacy by the School District of Philadelphia, which believed the bill would be a net negative for the city’s children — a third of whom are already in charter schools.

    “As a school district, we look forward to continuing to work with all the parties involved to rewrite that [charter] legislation so it ensures high quality charter schools and does not drain financial resources from the district,” said Philadelphia schools superintendent William Hite.

    That outcome frustrated school-reform advocates.

    PennCAN executive director Jonathan Cetel had lobbied for a few priorities that wilted in recent months.

    In addition to this charter bill, his group pushed plans to limit teacher seniority, and to create a special state-run district for low-performing schools.

    Wolf vetoed the former. The latter failed to find consensus, again helped by Hite’s opposition.

    “Instead what we got is significant, but still insufficient, increases in education spending, a patchwork of new, but I would say unsustainable taxes…and no new accountability,” said Cetel.

    Maybe the biggest reason the state avoided another impasse this year is that leaders shied away from building unwieldy grand bargains with interdependent parts.

    Medical marijuana legalization was approved separately; so too a new plan that expands options for buying beer and wine.

    Last year, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said he wouldn’t agree to an education funding increase without revising the state pension system. He aims to reduce guaranteed pension benefits for new teachers and state workers in order to remove market risk from taxpayers.

    School districts, too, have been sweating over rising pension obligations.

    But this year, larger talks progressed even as the issue was tabled.

    Even if many sides leave this legislative session somewhat disappointed, Reed is heartened by the things that were accomplished — a point echoed by the Wolf administration.

    “It took us a year to really get a good hold on the perspective each other was coming from,” said Reed. “Divided government takes folks willing to work together for the sake of getting things done.”

    Lawmakers aren’t expected to convene again until mid-September.

    Correction: A previous version of this article said Erie would receive $6 million in emergency aid, and that Duquesne, Harrisburg and York would split another $4 million. Erie will receive $4 million, and the Wolf administration has not yet decided how to split the rest.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal