In Harrisburg, almost four months late, lawmakers finally completed the 2017-2018 PA budget.
In June, our legislature were happy to pass a $32 billion spending plan that protected programs and services important to their constituents, including a $100 million increase in Basic Education Funding for public schools.
However, when it came to pay for that $32 billion budget – they punted. Ultimately, the Senate did its job and passed a bipartisan revenue plan that contained a mix of borrowing and new, recurring revenues, including a tax on Marcellus Shale gas drillers. However, the House, led by Speaker Mike Turzai, rejected that bipartisan plan. Worse, they refused to negotiate any plan that contained a Shale tax or other significant sources of recurring revenue.
In the end, the extremists’ intransigence was rewarded.
Finally, a majority of House and Senate members agreed to Mike Turzai’s eye-poppingly irresponsible plan that relies on massive gambling expansion, $1.5 billion in borrowing and one-time fund transfers to pay for the 2017-2018 budget. Governor Wolf has approved that plan. The alternative was a prolonged budget impasse and, ultimately, potentially devastating cuts in state funding to our schools and other core programs this year.
Governor Wolf also announced on Friday that he would allow the PA School Code to become law without his signature. The School Code is a single bill that includes many important provisions for our schools. This year, lawmakers packed some awful ideas into the code.
The school code contains an additional $10 million in EITC funding to provide tax credits to business that provide private school scholarships and it allows charter schools to form “multiple charter school organizations” without providing clear governance guidelines for these entities. The school code also includes language that allows “economic reasons” as reason to cut teachers and requires teacher furloughs to be based on performance evaluations rather than seniority.
The School Code also contains language that bans lunch shaming in PA’s public schools. Prohibiting lunch shaming in PA law ensures that school employees will end this extraordinarily cruel practice of humiliating students because they have unpaid lunch debts.
The School Code also delays the Keystone exam graduation requirement until 2019-2020, giving the state more time to prepare a plan for a better and fairer measure of student success. The School Code also ensures that millions of dollars in reimbursements for students who have disabilities that require high-cost services will be made to school districts. Without the School Code, school districts could have been left high and dry and may have had to make up for a significant loss of special education funding by drawing down their fund balances, making cuts or raising property taxes.
The current PA House is controlled by determined ideological extremists who simply will not accept bi-partisan compromise. These lawmakers, led by Mike Turzai and Dave Reed, are putting the state’s ability to adequately fund public schools at risk by refusing to raise new recurring revenues. As we look forward, defenders of public education must play a critical – and vocal – role in holding PA lawmakers accountable for their support (or non-support) of PA’s public schools.
Lawmakers will spend a few more days in Harrisburg before the end of the year. It would not be surprising for the Senate Education Committee to bring up the education savings account bill, aka DeVos’s voucher bill, for a vote when they think people are not paying attention. We will keep you informed.