Gov. Shapiro has a unique opportunity to continue leading on public education – Pennsylvania Capital-Star
By Diana Polson
Then-Attorney General Josh Shapiro made a convincing case to the Commonwealth Court that adequate funding is needed to provide the level of education required by the state Constitution. These words, taken from the amicus brief in support of the Petitioners in William Penn School District, et al. v. Pennsylvania Department of Education et al. offered his clear and vocal support of petitioners challenging our state’s school funding system.
To date, the vigorous and compelling case made by Attorney General Shapiro has yet to be articulated by Gov. Shapiro through the Basic Education Funding Commission (BEFC). As the BEFC wraps up seven months of hearings in early December, the administration has played a neutral role and has largely been silent on the state’s obligation to comply with the Commonwealth Court order to adequately fund public schools.
As governor, Shapiro has the power to rectify what, as AG, he found as unconstitutional deficiencies in public school funding. The governor’s passion for public education is unquestioned, but the time has come to turn years of support for Pennsylvania’s public schools into action.
Pennsylvania has an opportunity, as well as a court-ordered mandate, to fix our state’s unconstitutional public education funding system. In February, Judge Jubelirer found our state’s school funding to be unconstitutional, ruling that poor school districts do not have the resources they need to educate their students. The court ordered the General Assembly to fix this problem and provide all students with a “thorough and efficient” education.
The BEFC is the logical place to figure out a path forward for the Commonwealth. Gov. Shapiro’s administration is well-positioned within the commission to impact the future of public education in Pennsylvania.
The BEFC was established in June 2014 to make recommendations including the establishment of a basic education funding formula. Hearings held in 2014/2015 led to the establishment of Pennsylvania’s fair funding formula to distribute state funding more equitably according to the needs of students and school districts. The establishment of the formula, although inadequate, was a huge step forward.
The role the BEFC played in the establishment of this formula was enormous—getting input from stakeholders on the problem, conducting the research, and recommending a solution. Randy Albright, who led then-Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget office at the time, said that in this commission, lawmakers of both parties and the governor’s office came to the table honestly interested in working together to create a solution. “That was one of the last honestly negotiated pieces of legislation during Wolf’s tenure before things got so partisan.”
Today, partisan politics are even more pervasive. We’ve seen evidence of a rift on the 2023 BEFC, with one Republican lawmaker downplaying the Court order to fix public school funding. The commission has the power to develop a solution that includes calculating how much it will actually cost to adequately educate all students and get us to constitutional compliance. Given some Republican resistance, however, the Shapiro administration’s role in assuring the Commission uses its power to establish a solution is even more acute—and terribly needed.
The commission is made up of a 15-member group that includes 12 lawmakers split evenly between each party in the House and Senate, and three representatives from the Shapiro administration. Given the even party split, the three representatives from the Shapiro administration can, and should, have a great influence on the outcome of the 2023 BEFC. As Randy Albright said, “The governor and his administration have more power than anybody” in solving this problem. “They just have to make it a priority and be willing to expend the political capital.”
Gov. Shapiro has signaled he’s ready to lead on this issue. He said himself in his first budget address earlier this year:
“Last month, President Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer of the Commonwealth Court issued a ruling declaring Pennsylvania’s system for funding public education unconstitutional. That ruling was a call to action. Literally. I’m ready to meet you there.”
We’re here, waiting for Gov. Shapiro’s commitment, voice, and leadership. Now is the time for the administration to step up and be a champion for public schools, for children across the Commonwealth, and for generations to come.
Diana Polson is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Keystone Research Center, a progressive think tank in Harrisburg
Originally published at www.penncapital-star.com,by Special to the Capital-Star