With election approaching, Pa. leaders seek the modest middle ground on education

Pa. Capitol Building, Harrisburg. (Kevin McCorry/WHYY)

Pa. Capitol Building, Harrisburg. (Kevin McCorry/WHYY)

Education spending has been at the center of bitter, protracted budget debates in Pennsylvania in recent years.

This go-round, with elections in the offing, negotiations between Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican leaders in the legislature have featured a lot less rancor, and education seems to be at the heart of the compromise.

The House approved a $32.7 billion spending plan Wednesday in a nearly unanimous vote. The proposal features modest increases aimed at satisfying education advocates of many stripes, while not raising taxes.

Wolf and Senate leaders have indicated support for the plan.

The harmony is indicative, some say, of a session where the most divisive education issues of funding and policy have been sidestepped.

“It just seems like the status quo this year is what most lawmakers thought would allow them to win their elections in the fall,” said Susan Spicka, executive director of the advocacy group Education Voters of PA.

That’s not to say nothing happened.

The House spending plan, for instance, contains several modest bumps including:

  • A $100 million boost to basic education and a $15 million increase in special-education dollars, both of which will go through the recently implemented funding formula;
  • Another $25 million for pre-K;
  • $30 million for career and technical education, along with another $10 million routed through the Department of Labor and Industry for apprenticeship training and industry partnerships;
  • A one-time $60 million infusion for school safety initiatives, as well as $1.4 million extra for a recurring grant program that helps districts pay for safety upgrades in response to recent school shootings.

There’s also a plan to expand a state tax credit program that helps families pay for private school tuition, raising the cap from $175 million to $200 million.

The $100 million bump in basic education funding satisfies Wolf’s budget ask, while the special-ed and pre-K amounts fall short of what Wolf initially wanted. The tax credit expansion pleases school choice advocates.

Vocational education and school safety are both areas where there’s considerable bipartisan agreement. Given the climate of compromise, it’s not surprising that both saw considerable increases.

“I think an election year plays into everybody wanting to work together,” said Ashley DeMauro, Northeast regional legislative director for the advocacy group ExcelinEd.

Policy

On the policy end of the spectrum, the dust hasn’t totally settled.

Some notable education bills have moved through the legislature this year.

Probably the buzziest proposal is Senate Bill 2, which would allow parents at certain, low-performing schools to use state dollars on private school tuition, tutoring, or other educational services. After several false starts, the bill made it out of the Senate Education Committee, but it is still a long way from becoming law — and it could face the veto pen even if both chambers approve.

Supporters of the measure hope the activity sets up future passage in some form.

“Even if there isn’t any fruit from this session, we’re excited for how it sets it up for future sessions,” said Marc LeBlond, senior policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation.

Elsewhere on the school-choice spectrum, charter school advocates are walking away from the session less enthused.

In past years, legislators spent considerable effort trying to strike a compromise on the state’s 21-year-old charter law, which advocates on all sides of the debate dislike for different reasons.

This year, though, those conversations fizzled, and some advocates believe the election-year detente discouraged lawmakers from tackling this thorny issue.

“It is unfortunate that we are not looking at these reforms,” said Ana Meyers, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

An omnibus reform bill, House Bill 97, appears unlikely to reach the governor’s desk this year, Meyers said, and her group will probably change its strategy next session to combat the inertia that seems to have developed around charters.

Rather than packaging all the reforms together into one piece of legislation, she said, advocates will try to push breakaway bills that charter leaders favor. These include longer agreements for high performers and charter representation on the state appeals board that oversees renewals.

Some charter skeptics want to reimagine the way charters receive public dollars, especially when serving special-education students.

Other notable pieces of legislation moving through Harrisburg this session include:

  •  A bill that would give students several alternative pathways to graduation if they don’t pass the statewide Keystone Exams;
  •  A bill that would allow parents to opt their students out of the Keystone Exams for reasons other than a religious objection;
  •  A bill that would require students to take, though not pass, a civics exam;
  • Bills that would establish mandatory security drills, create an anonymous tip line for school safety threats, and allow districts to decide whether they’d allow staff to carry firearms on school grounds.

Though they’ve gained little traction, other bills would push more money through the state’s education funding formula — which takes into account student enrollment, local tax effort, poverty, and other factors when determining how much state money each district receives.

Assuming the House’s budget passes, about 8 percent of the state’s basic education dollars will pass through that formula in the 2018-19 school year.

Lawmakers from fast-growing parts Pennsylvania favor sending more money through the formula, including several Republican legislators. But, so far, the formula has been limited to only the new money added since 2015.

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