Year in Review: Pennsylvania education policy

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(The Center Square) – From preschool through college, from the family wallet to the state’s coffers, the cost of education stretching budgets beyond their capacity has been a major theme in Pennsylvania this year.

Here’s a look at how the commonwealth has grappled with its obligations to its students in 2023.

Basic Education Funding

The 10-year legal battle over the state’s funding of its public school system came to an end in February when Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer issued a landmark ruling deeming the state’s funding formula unconstituional. The case centered around massive gaps in outcomes between wealthy and poor school districts and held the legislature and former Gov. Tom Wolf to account for the inadequacies.

After Republican leadership chose not to appeal the verdict, the work began to create a solution that could fill the gaps. The Basic Education Funding Committee met over several months, visiting school districts across the state to hear testimony from educators and experts on where things have gone wrong.

While all parties were able to come to a consensus around the need for reform, a specific plan of attack remains elusive. With issues from racial inequality to understaffing to outdated, unsafe, and overcrowded facilities, the challenge before legislators is daunting, though experts have shed light on some potential paths forward.

Advocates argue that identifying a specific metric for adequacy and providing consistent funding is essential for school boards and administrators to be successful. Initiatives like PlanCon 2.0 can help the state fund much-needed infrastructure updates while lawmakers consider core curriculum changes like structured literacy that could boost lagging academic performance.

School Choice

One area where legislators, parents, and educators are not seeing eye to eye is school choice. While traditional districts have lamented the loss of some of their own budgets toward charter school tuition for students residing in their district, charter schools have asked for a seat at the table in discussing reform.

A report on racial bias confirmed many of the concerns voiced by charter school executives, ones that echo the calls for racial equity across school districts.

On the last session day of the year, Gov. Josh Shapiro signed a bill that boosts school choice tax credits by $150 million. The apparent compromise follows a protracted battle to establish a new voucher program that would have covered tuition for a wider swath of students living in low-performing districts – one that Shapiro and Senate Republicans supported, but House Democrats did not.

Career and Technical Education

Amidst staffing and demographic crises, legislators continued to search for incentives to draw and retain skilled laborers to the state. One area of interest is Career and Technology Education. Many of the state’s CTE schools boast impressive results but don’t receive the funding they say they need to thrive. Leaders joined the chorus of educators who say unfunded and burdensome state mandates and regulations are stifling their success.

Higher Education Tuition

Pennsylvania college students continue to struggle with historically high tuition rates, despite several years of freezes. The legislature wrestled with schools to better define its role within the educational system. Despite being a large source of funding for PASSHE and other state-related universities, funding per student lags far behind neighboring states.

The treasury slashed fees on its educational savings plans, incentivizing parents to start saving for their children’s college tuition early. The House has also taken under consideration a plan to offer a tax deduction for student loan interest paid up to $2,500.

Child Care Tax Credit

Parents, especially those struggling to afford early childhood education, saw a win at the end of the legislative session when Shapiro signed the new budget into law. An expanded tax credit that takes its cues from federal income taxes will see many families receiving up to $2,100 for child care costs.

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