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BEFC Chair Says Equitable Education Funding Will Position Pennsylvania To Be An Economic Powerhouse

Rep. Mike Sturla

It is the gigantic neon sign on the Vegas strip. Maybe even the “Sphere.”

It is the top chore on the “Honey-Do” list.

It is something that Pennsylvania lawmakers can no longer ignore. It’s Basic Education Funding in the Commonwealth.

Since Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer of the state’s Commonwealth Court announced last February that Pennsylvania’s school funding system was unconstitutional, the General Assembly has been charged with finding a solution.

Jubelirer ruled that the system must be reformed, as it violates the Education Clause of the state constitution because if fails to ensure that “every student receives a meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and civically which requires that all students have access to a comprehensive, effective, and contemporary system of public education.”

She also ruled that public education is a “fundamental right” and “the current system of funding public education has disproportionately, negatively impacted students who attend schools in low-wealth school districts.”

While Commonwealth Court did not tell the legislature how to create a new funding system, it did provide clear requirement and guardrails and spells out the specific problems that must be remedied in low-wealth districts.

A Basic Education Funding Commission was established and charged with reviewing the distribution of state funding for basic education to Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts and providing a report to the General Assembly.

The 15-member commission – comprising six Democrats, six Republicans and three representatives of the Shapiro Administration – was co-chaired by Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster) and Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) and adopted a majority report with recommendations to Gov. Josh Shapiro, General Assembly and the State Board of Education.

PoliticsPA spoke with Sturla recently about his thoughts about Shapiro’s budget proposal which called for the legislature to close the $5.4 billion adequacy gap between high-wealth and low-wealth school districts.

“The Constitution requires that we do one thing and one thing only, and that is to fund a system of public schools in the state of Pennsylvania,” said Sturla. “If we didn’t do anything else in our budget, we would not be in violation of the Constitution. If we don’t fund schools, we’re in violation of the Constitution. The court said, we’re currently in violation of the Constitution.”

The governor’s proposed 2024-25 fiscal year budget includes $8,94 billion for the Basic Education Funding appropriation. This amount is a $1,072B (13.62%) increase over the 2023-24 enacted fiscal year appropriation. The proposed budget includes:

  • Increase of $200 million in the student-weighted distribution formula to continue sustained investment in school district basic education programs.
  • Increase of $872 million to provide an adequacy investment for basic education as recommended by the Basic Education Funding Commission.


Republicans have made the case that a lot of money was funneled into education last year with House GOP Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) pointing to recent PSSA exam results that have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.

“Despite years of bipartisan support for historic amounts of increased funding for public education, including schools in rural and urban Pennsylvania suffering from the deepest poverty, our testing metrics show Pennsylvania’s students are not climbing out of this learning deficit fast enough,” Cutler added. “It is clearer than ever that money alone is not the answer, and it is equally clear that the partisan report approved by Democrats on the Basic Education Funding Commission is endemic of a system captured in the sad cycle of its own failings.”

Sturla contradicted Cutler’s point, using the analogy of a wheelbarrow and an Olympic-sized pool.

“Okay, so you gave me a wheelbarrow load (of money),” he said. “So what now? The hole was the size of an Olympic-sized pool. What it needs is 10 or 15 or 20 or 50 of those every year for the next seven or eight years to get us to the point where the pool is full.

“Budgets are documents of priorities. If we say we’re not funding education, because we’ve got so many other priorities that we have to do, the courts are going to say, ‘I’m sorry, your priorities are wrong.’ All the court does is interpret the Constitution (and) the Constitution says there is no other priority.”

When talk of funding education is discussed at the local level, it usually begins and ends with school taxes and the wealthiest and the poorest districts in the area. In Lancaster County, Manheim Township and the School District of Lancaster find themselves at the opposite ends of the funding spectrum.

“There’s always (people that say) on average, we spend X amount per student,” said Sturla. “That local school district down there that’s wealthy taxes the living daylights out of their constituents and brings your statewide average up. But the poor district can’t raise enough money. (Opponents) say what the average is. Who cares what the average is?

“We’re not asking that we spent $35,000 for every student. We’re saying spend $13,000 per student.”

He noted that Manheim Township, located just north of the city of Lancaster, does better than one might expect in this formula, as it has not been growing with more wealthy students. It’s been growing due to a larger number of students with special needs or have English as a second language.

“Because of the increase of population, Manheim Township is getting shorted about $19 million a year. We only give them nine. They’ll triple what they’re getting.

“And the School District of Lancaster would get an additional $41 million a year, in addition to the $77M that they already get, plus an additional $15 million a year supplement, because the School District of Lancaster has basically relied on the local citizens to fund to try and make up the gap – the $41 million gap that already exists.”

Sturla said that the proposal was not just Democrats throwing money around.

“We have proof in the state of Pennsylvania, that when you increase funding, and you make those funds accountable, you get results,” he said citing 2008 accountability block grants that led to a marked improvement in standardized test scores.”

The larger question is when … when might results be seen throughout the Commonwealth?

“I’m going to see improvement in test scores, but I’m not going to see the complete full effect until after seven years of increased funding,” said Sturla. “We’re going to incrementally roll this up over a seven-year period. Seven years from now, (a) kid that enters kindergarten in the School District of Lancaster will be able to look forward to 12 or 13 full years of adequate and equitable funding. So 20 years from now, I will see the full effect. And when we expect that 20 years from now, our graduation rates will be higher.

“The full impact of this is going to be seen a generation,” he continued. “But if we don’t do what what we’re saying we have to do, we have to accelerate. We got to do it in seven years.

“What we know in our modern day United States commercial society, is I need an educated workforce. What ultimately this will do is, I think, position Pennsylvania, so be an economic powerhouse. And if we’re not willing to do it for the kids for the right moral reasons, at least do it for the economic reasons.”

Sturla also pushed back on the notion posed by Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) that Shapiro’s budget was undisciplined and ” reckless in a ‘unicorns and rainbows’ way.

“I think that it is if you believe that government does not have a role in improving the economy or people’s lives, then anything that government does is unicorns and rainbows. And so I think that if you take that approach, and just say, just let the world take care of itself, well, then why do I have to fund the private school through your hope?”

One Response

  1. Funding public schools equitably is a State obligation, as per the PA Constitution. Vouchers for kids to escape to religious or otherwise private schools violates that public obligation, as well as separation of church and State per US Constitution. Public funds should only go to public schools and students.


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