HARRISBURG, Pa.— When Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro unveils his first budget next week, the poor districts that won a landmark school-funding lawsuit will want to see him propose a significant down payment and a plan to overhaul how the state pays for K-12 education in what could be a term-defining moment for the Democrat.
While the work does not end in one budget cycle, changing that course begins now, and lawyers for the school districts told The Associated Press at least $2 billion in additional funding for education would be a good start toward the billions more they say the poorest school districts need.
“We think that this is an appropriate investment to start to address the scale of the problem we’re facing,” said Maura McInerney, legal director at Pennsylvania’s Education Law Center, which helped represent the school districts along with Public Interest Law Center and the O’Melveny & Myers law firm.
But it’s only a start of what the winning school districts hope to see.
Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, senior attorney at Public Interest Law Center, said they’re hoping to see an action plan from Shapiro that shows how the state will develop a system that funds schools based on what students need.
“What we don’t want is a fight over this budget cycle and then to, in July, ask what happens next,” he said.
A judge ruled in February that the state’s system of funding public schools ultimately violates students’ constitutional rights — siding with six school districts, the NAACP and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools — in a lawsuit launched nearly a decade ago in pursuit of billions of dollars in additional annual aid.
Lawyers for the school districts argued in court that Pennsylvania’s school funding system relies disproportionately on local property taxes, helping to widen the gap between rich and poor districts.
The court’s ruling did not determine a figure for how much the state should distribute or how, leaving it to the Legislature, the governor and school districts that sued to determine a plan to address the violations. The decision gave no deadline.
Other states with similar suits, however, have shown legislative action is not often swift. In some cases, there’s no guarantee it comes to fruition. Lawmakers have not often approved enough funds to be entirely compliant with a court’s ruling, or the cases can return to court time and time again in attempts to push lawmakers to act.
Shapiro is scheduled to unveil his first budget plan Tuesday when he speaks to a joint session of the Legislature.
So far, he has said little about how he will respond to the court decision after saying repeatedly on the campaign trail last year that he was in favor of “fully funding” public schools.
Lt. Gov. Austin Davis, speaking at the Pennsylvania Press Club on Monday, hinted that a school-funding response will be a major feature of Shapiro’s budget plan, saying Shapiro will “have a lot to say” about equitable school funding.
Any plan must get through the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the Republican-controlled Senate. Meanwhile, House and Senate Republicans — who opposed the school districts’ lawsuit — have not said whether they will appeal the judge’s ruling.
The school districts’ lawyers presented evidence during last year’s trial that schools are underfunded by $4.6 billion, an estimate they said does not account for gaps in spending on special education, school buildings and other facilities.
In the current fiscal year, the state is sending about $9.6 billion to school districts for school operations, instruction and special education.
“I think we’re all looking forward to hearing what he says in his budget speech, so we have a little bit better sense of what he’s been hearing and what it is that he’s thinking,” said Katrina Robson, a partner at O’Melveny & Myers LLP, which helped represent the school districts in the suit.
Still, there are steps the Legislature can take in this budget cycle to begin addressing the gaps the court acknowledges are there.
That includes earmarking extra aid for the poorest districts and saving the districts money by reducing payments to charter schools.
In the long term plan, the plaintiffs want a system that addresses all the inequities the court recognized, McInerney said. That touches on facilities, class sizes, staffing and how much schools currently rely on local property taxes.
This will be a paradigm shift, McInerney said.