Schools relieved as Pa. budget poised to avoid education cuts, for now

School buses are parked at a depot Thursday, April 9, 2020, in Zelienople, Pa. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Thursday that schools will remain shuttered for the rest of the academic year because of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

School buses are parked at a depot Thursday, April 9, 2020, in Zelienople, Pa. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Thursday that schools will remain shuttered for the rest of the academic year because of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Are you on the front lines of the coronavirus? Help us report on the pandemic.

It appears Pennsylvania’s public schools will get at least a one-year reprieve from any large-scale, state budget cuts.

In a budget bill that squeaked through the State House on Tuesday, lawmakers decided to hold all major education spending even for the next twelve months. If that bill is ultimately signed, money for Pre-K, K-12, and state universities will be identical to what it was this year.

That’s notable because most of the state budget will be revisited five months from now — after the election and after state officials have a better sense of the fiscal damage wrought by the coronavirus.

But school boards, child care operators, and university presidents won’t have to worry about substantial state cuts until at least 2021.

Mike Straub, spokesman for the House Republican Caucus, said schools needed to know where they stood financially before the academic year began. The prospect of a cut in five months — during the middle of the school year — is something parents, teachers, and students “shouldn’t be faced with right now,” he said.

Republicans who control the State Senate expect the proposal to clear their chamber, as well.

“We wanted to be sure to send the message that education was important,” said Jennifer Kocher, spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre). “We wanted to provide a little bit of stability.”

For education advocates, the news comes as a relief.

“It is a huge victory,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth and a former education advisor to Governor Ed Rendell. “[It’s] a really testament to the hard work of all the lawmakers and all the advocates and all the educators to make the case clear that schools are essential to this recovery.”

Chris Lilienthal, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the commonwealth’s largest teachers union, said he was “very happy that Governor Wolf and the legislature have decided to provide some stability for our school districts at a very difficult time.”

Wolf’s office has not yet said whether the governor will sign the stopgap budget.

Advocates and lawmakers think that is likely.

Still, daunting fiscal and logistical hurdles remain.

“It’s not all rosy,” Cooper said.

One advocacy group is projecting a large drop in local tax dollars, which make up about 40% of all school district revenue. School districts also tend to count on increases to state aid so they can keep up with mandated expenses such as pension, health care, and charter school costs. Universities, meanwhile, face the prospect of a sharp enrollment dip and a resulting drop in tuition revenue.

And there are unanswered questions about how school will look in the fall — specifically how much of it will be in person. Some medical officials recommend schools provide masks, testing, and other forms of disease mitigation that could require substantial new investments of their own.

Given all of that uncertainty, state lawmakers opted to provide some financial assurance to education leaders. By doing so, they’ll likely need to make tough choices in other parts of the state budget. Pennsylvania will collect about $3.8 billion less in revenue this fiscal year than it had originally anticipated, according to recent projections from the Independent Fiscal Office.

“Flat funding … for 12 months offers school districts really critical stability as they’re working through their budgets this spring,” said Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania. “But this funding is only the beginning of what’s necessary.”

Get more Pennsylvania stories that matter

In other states, officials have forecasted major and immediate cuts to education spending. The School District of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s largest, looked at dire revenue projections from Harrisburg and prepared for an $80 million cut to funding when forecasting a $1 billion deficit in five years.

The latest news likely means those doomsday projections will be somewhat softened — at least until next school year.

The funding, however, may come with some expectation that schools hold the standard 180 days of classes in the upcoming academic year. This year, the state allowed districts to opt out of the 180-day requirement embedded in law.

Republican leaders in the State House do not want that option on the table for 2020-21.

“What we’re asking for is that next year students go to school for 180 days,” said Straub. “Basically the existing law would remain in place.”

That does not necessarily mean 180 days of in-person school, Straub added. But it does mean that schools would have to submit and receive approval for distance learning days if they need to use them next year.

In the current school year, some districts went weeks without formal instruction as they tried to pivot online.

“Our members are hearing from their constituents on this, day in day out,” said Straub. “They expect their schools to be operating.”

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

Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.