‘The right proposal at the right time’: Philadelphia School Superintendent Tony Watlington praises Gov. Shapiro’s $1.1 billion funding increase for education

In his second budget address Tuesday, Shapiro announced a record $1.1 billion dollars in increased education funding.

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Tony Watlington poses for a photo in his office

Philadelphia schools Superintendent Tony Watlington in his office at school district headquarters on North Broad Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Tony Watlington Sr. said  Pa. Gov. Josh Shapiro’s billion-dollar increase in basic education funding for public schools statewide is the “right proposal at the right time” to help the district deal with its challenges.

In his second budget address Tuesday, Shapiro announced a record $1.1 billion dollars in increased funding, building on historic levels of education funding in his budget approved by the Legislature in 2023.

“We absolutely must get the funding that the governor has proposed and hope that the legislatures will see fit to say, the School District of Philadelphia has made progress, our students are worthy of these dollars and these investments and let’s get on down the road and do what needs to be done here so that our students can have an opportunity to participate in any career that they can imagine or realize,” Watlington said.

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In 2023, the Commonwealth Court ruled that the state’s public education formula was unconstitutional and had resulted in Philadelphia’s and other school districts being underfunded for years. The court directed the state to fix the problem.

Since then, the Shapiro administration listened to the horrors of underfunded schools across the state, from those that lacked air conditioning, to schools with asbestos, lead paint and other issues in the city.

As a result, the governor said about $500 million has been set aside for repairs, including $300 million this year, to make schools “healthy and safe.”

“We need to build … a more competitive Pennsylvania that starts in our classrooms, runs through our union halls and our small businesses, through our farmlands and our high rises, our college campuses, and leads to a life of opportunity and a retirement with dignity,” Shapiro said.

Recently, the Basic Education Commission issued a report that estimated that about $5.4 billion over a seven-year period was needed to fix the years of underfunding.

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To be sure, Shapiro’s $48 billion state budget is heavily invested in education, workforce development and economic development, which he argued are related.

“As the governor, and I have traveled the commonwealth since taking office, we’ve heard from Pennsylvanians about the most pressing challenges they face — and the governor’s budget proposal makes critical investments to make their lives better and create ladders of opportunity,” said Lt. Gov. Austin Davis. “The Shapiro-Davis budget will create more economic opportunity for all, make our communities safer and healthier, support students from pre-K through high school and beyond, invest in our workforce, and help working families across the commonwealth build generational wealth.”

For example, as part of his overhaul of the state’s higher education system unveiled last month, Shapiro said his administration would invest $975 million in a new governance system that includes the state-owned universities, along with the 15 community colleges — a 15% increase from $850 million in the previous year. Some of the state-owned universities include Bloomsburg Commonwealth University; Cheyney University, one of the state’s two Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and West Chester University.

In addition, Shapiro, who described the state higher education system as broken, is proposing a 5% increase in funding for the commonwealth’s state-related universities: Lincoln University, an HBCU, Pennsylvania State University, Temple University and University of Pittsburgh. These schools are not owned by the state but receive significant funding from it.

According to Shapiro the state system is ranked near the bottom of all 50 states in terms of state investment and affordability, which is in turn hampering the commonwealth’s competitive edge and hurting the economy.

“I agree with him that the public higher education system is absolutely broken,” said Sean Vereen, co-president of Heights Philadelphia, a nonprofit that helps young people achieve economic mobility.

Dan Greenstein, PASSHE chancellor, praised Shapiro’s increase in funding for the state’s higher education system, which he said is vital to keeping tuition down.

Other highlights of the governor’s budget include:

  • $50 million for special education funding for students with disabilities and special needs
  • $50 million annual investment for safety and security in the schools
  • $10 million for the state’s fund to recruit and retain teachers
  • $15 million for residents seeking to become certified educators
  • $2.2 million to support workforce development

In December, the Legislature finalized Shapiro’s previous budget, which included $567 million in basic education funding and $175 million for school facility repair. Of that total, about $85 million in basic education funding was earmarked for Philadelphia, said Speaker of House Johanna McClinton (D.-191st District), which includes parts of West Philadelphia.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that he applauds Shapiro for his budget and efforts to fix the state’s underfunded public school system.

“For years, we have fought tirelessly to ensure that the students and staff have the resources that they need and deserve in order to thrive,” Jordan said. “While we have seen increases over the past several years, we now have [a] court ruling that, with finality, states that the way we fund public education in our commonwealth is unconstitutional and indeed immoral.”

Vereen, of Heights Philadelphia, said the billion-dollar commitment is significant.

“I think it’s exciting and [Gov. Shapiro’s] commitment and desire to make this a front-and-center issue is exciting and necessary,” Vereen said. “We believe that pathways for young people through both education and workforce success are going to help transform this city.”

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