‘Spirited’ debates ahead for Pennsylvania education policy

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(The Center Square) – Legislators on both sides of the aisle expect some friction over the state’s education policy in 2024.

With issues like a teacher staffing shortage and last year’s judicial ruling around public school funding, the pressure — and the attention — is on.

“I expect spirited debates in 2024 in order to provide more educational opportunities for children and address the Commonwealth Court decision regarding our unconstitutional school funding system,” Senate Education Committee Chair Dave Argall, R-Pottsville, told The Center Square.

His comment sets the stage for what is expected to be tough negotiations around a daunting task.

The state’s Basic Education Funding Commission, which met over the course of several months in 2023, is expected to publish its findings next week, according to House Education Committee Chair Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Allentown. He noted that the report is only meant to serve as a road map, one which needs to be supported by legislative action.

Action is the key word for Schweyer and others in his caucus who have set a swift pace for education policies coming from committee.

“We’re not slowing down,” he said.

For those bills to have an impact, however, they need to move through the Senate as well, a feat which has proven challenging. Bills on regulatory change, scholarships and tutoring and mentoring have fallen flat upon reaching the chamber floor, despite ostensible bipartisan interest in their intended outcomes.

Schweyer believes that more could be accomplished if some of the hot-button cultural issues that have taken center-stage nationally were set aside in deference to larger systemic questions, though Republicans argue that pumping the brakes on education initiatives has more to do with spending.

“In recent years, we’ve made record investments in education. As we move forward with larger state investments in our public schools, we need to know that we’re not just dumping more money into a broken system,” said Argall.

Issues the Democratic caucus hopes to address for K-12 students include further investing in facilities, childcare affordability and improving the teacher pipeline. Schweyer noted that while last year’s student teacher stipend was a victory, a few schools are still starting teacher salaries at the state minimum, a mere $18,500.

Republicans share the priority of attracting, incentivizing and retaining teachers as much of the dwindling pool reaches retirement age.

Argall said that his party will “continue to work on addressing the educator workforce shortages plaguing parts of the state and helping our high school students learn more career-defining skills before they graduate, via dual enrollment or apprenticeship opportunities,” opening the door for increased focus on career and technical education as well.

Another major priority for the legislature has been addressing college unaffordability, an issue that has plagued both the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and state-related colleges and universities like the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State.

Schweyer said this would be an area to watch for major changes in 2024 as his party works alongside the governor to address the current higher education structure and system.

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