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Democratic candidates criticize school choice amid budget stalemate

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(The Center Square) — To fix education funding, Democrats want to see the state government take on a bigger proportion of school funding.

“The state budget is now almost a week late. We expect some critical decisions will be made over this weekend that we hope complete the budget,” said Marc Stier, executive director of the Pennsylvania Policy Center, during an online press conference with two Democratic state senate candidates. “The most critical decision will be about how we fund our schools.”

Stier appeared with Jim Wertz, the Democratic candidate in Erie County’s District 49, and Nicole Ruscitto, the Democratic candidate in Allegheny County’s District 37, to talk about solutions for public education, which “have been inadequately and inequitably funded in Pennsylvania,” he said.

Pennsylvania’s education funding mirrors the country: on average, schools rely on local taxes for 44% of spending, state funding for 45%, and federal funding for 11%. But the commonwealth relies more on local sources: 53% of funding comes from the local share, 37% from the state, and 9% from the federal government.

Both Wertz and Ruscitto want that to change.

“As I go door to door, more people know about the underfunding of public education and the incredible opportunity we have here thanks to the Commonwealth Court to finally fix it,” Wertz said. “State funding has dropped from 52% to 34% … for more than 30 years, as we’ve been cutting funding at the state level, property taxes increased to make up the difference.”

In 2023, the court ruled Pennsylvania’s education funding system was unconstitutional; Gov. Shapiro has argued for a $1 billion increase in funding in his budget (a 14% increase), while Republicans argued for school choice to address the school system’s shortfalls.

High local taxes are a constant complaint; in some cases, the tax burden for schools can be quadruple that of all other local taxes. And the Independent Fiscal Office expects school district taxes to grow by 5% and 4% in 2025 and 2026, respectively.

Wertz and Rusciotto also criticized school vouchers, supported by their opponents, Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, and Sen. Devlin Robinson, R-Pittsburgh.

“My opponent’s voting record has not benefited public education,” Rusciotto said. “Once again, (vouchers are) an unaccountable system of education that’s costing taxpayers dollars — schools are losing money.”

Without a change in the system, Wertz argued that population decline could get worse.

“We need to be realistic about our population issues, but we also need to understand that our demographic problems are the result of underfunding public education in the commonwealth,” he said. “There are reasons why families aren’t settling here and why people are choosing to leave. Education is the investment that can reconcile that, can bring people back to Pennsylvania and ensure that young Pennsylvanians stay here.”

Though both parties have criticized the education system, spending has continued to grow.

State support has gone from $8.6 billion in 2011 to $15.4 billion in 2024 as school district revenues have climbed from $25.2 billion to $36.7 billion. And since 2000, student enrollment has fallen by almost 140,000.

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