Pennsylvania’s Education Funding is broken, and is probably going to stay that way

11 January 2024- The act of simply throwing money at issues has tended to be the dominant form of governance for many in Harrisburg in the past few years. Education, which makes up 40% ($17.8B) of the state’s General Fund expenditures, has become increasingly targeted by members of both sides of the aisle with this tactic.

Every five years the State of Pennsylvania is required to review their Basic Education Funding formula. This was supposed to be done in 2020, but was pushed back because of the coronavirus pandemic. That is why the year of hearings have finally be compiled into a report dated for the 2023-24 school year. At least, the report that it seems the Shapiro Administration and Legislative Branch Dems want released.

All Republicans, including House Education Chair Jesse Topper, voted against the 112 page report that was approved on Thursday. Democrat Senator Lindsey Williams, the chamber’s Education Chair, also joined with Republicans voting against the report. Approval by all other Democrats on the panel as well as the three appointees from Governor Josh Shapiro’s office approved the report by one vote.

The biggest takeaway from the report that was officially adopted by the Funding Commission doesn’t seem to be funding formulas, but rather that funding just needs to be continuously increased. In the 2023-24 budget signed by the legislature and Governor Shapiro, a $46.5m increase in funding was allotted to universal free breakfast for students, $175m for repairs and upgrades to schools, and millions more to other projects.

“I think in terms of our report, we did show changes in the funding formula and those were changes that were agreed to in consensus across the board”, said House Education Committee Chair Jesse Topper to News Talk 1037FM. “Unfortunately,” Topper added, “we didn’t get to allow the structural changes that need to take place in education, some of which we reference in our report.”

“Just trying to pick a number out of thin air and say ‘this is what we’re going to use’, it’s really not effective and I don’t think its something even the Governor himself is going to take into too much consideration as he prepares for his budget address”, concluded Topper.

Systemic change, not just pencil pushing math, it seems is needed to actually improve the lowest performing schools in the Commonwealth.

On how his and his colleague’s unapproved report would be that change, Topper said, “we have so many school districts and we really need to regionalize some of these areas. If we want to create a structure that is truly equitable, then we need to change the structure.”

“Right now its so dependent on property taxes and where your school is located. If we want to get away from that model, we need to regionalize services, share services. Integration”, affirmed Topper.

Chairman Topper additionally keyed into the debate that kept last year’s budget from actually being approved in a timely matter; school choice funding.

The bulk of the 2023-24 fiscal budget was held up by a lack of consensus by Republicans and Democrats in the legislature as well as a hands-off approach by Governor Shapiro on the subject of PASS (Pennsylvania Award for Student Success) scholarships.

While both reports total over 90 pages each, with the approved one being over 110, there is plenty of the legislature to chew on as Governor Shapiro begins to prepare his next budget. The reports are merely suggestions, Topper says, and the Governor and legislature can pick and choose from one, the other, both, or neither to change funding levels. Just don’t expect major changes to education funding any time soon. That seems to be off the table.

Full interview with Topper is available on demand below.