THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY
The budget negotiations were as wild as trying to ride a broncin’ buck in a rodeo. While the House reluctantly voted to accept the Senate’s less ambitious budget plan, the deal is not done until the Senate sends the bill to Governor Shapiro for his signature (and his promised line-item veto).
Despite the Commonwealth idly sitting on $13 billion in the reserves or Rainy Day accounts and a court order to rectify the state’s unconstitutional public school funding system, the process produced a budget that stingily held back dollars desperately needed to help children and families.
Public education is getting its second largest budget boost in PA history with an increase of $717 million in basic education and special education funding, including $100 million in Level Up funds will be distributed to the 100 lowest-funded school districts at some point if the Senate returns to pass the legislation needed to permit the spending. Plus, all 1.7 million public school students will get free breakfasts and 22,0000 students can qualify for reduced-price lunches through the National School Lunch Program.
Assuming the pressure from 100 school districts helps to make that happen, Harrisburg took another step in the right direction to fill the massive $4.6 billion hole in state education funding.
More good news is that students will have greater access to mental health services, thanks to $100 million in remaining federal COVID funds now dedicated to school-based mental health services and the modest increases in Early Intervention can give some families hope that the development needs of their young children may soon be addressed.
Kids will also reap the benefits of the first-ever $2.37 million appropriation to get lead paint-based hazards out of homes and apartments. Our partners in the Lead-Free Promise Project led the charge and delivered in a real way for young children.
For the first time ever, $7.5 million is included for public defender’s offices to adequately support people who can’t pay for their own legal defense. This is good news for kids caught up in the juvenile justice system as Pennsylvania is one of only two states that does not allocate state funds to indigent defense.
Meanwhile, for the first time in a decade, no new funds were added to the state budget to expand access to pre-k in spite of its proven long-term positive impact on children. With billions of dollars languishing in reserves, it’s both tragic and shortsighted not to invest in our youngest children.
Although $100 million was added to support child care services, these funds are far short of what is needed to reopen the thousands of classrooms closed because providers cannot afford to hire new staff.
While gun violence is now the leading cause of child deaths, the $65 million cut to community violence prevention funds compared to the FY 24 funding levels clearly puts more children’s lives at risk.
The proposal to enact private school vouchers was undoubtedly the ugly in this budget process. Despite the absence of a shred of evidence that private or religious school vouchers can boost the outcomes of children attending low-performing schools, the Governor and the Senate seemed in lockstep to spend at least $100 million for that purpose. All the while they ignored the fact that those underperforming schools are the same ones the Commonwealth Court found wanting for resources when it directed the Governor and the Legislature to find a way to get them the funds they need.
The House leadership took matters into their own hands, demanding that the enacted budget not waste any public funds on private school vouchers. As the dust settled the Governor agreed to veto the voucher funds and live to fight another day for that misguided cause.
Make no mistake, Harrisburg is very much like the Wild West.
As the cowboys ride off into the sunset, a whole new scene is about to unfold once the Senate decides if they will, or will not, return to sign the budget and permit it to become law.