By Rep. Anita Kulik
With the Senate returning to session earlier this month, the General Appropriations Bill was sent to the governor, and we now have a budget. With House Bill 611 in place, the legislature will now seek to finish the budget with the enactment of the necessary code bills. Both the House and Senate return to session in September and hopefully these matters are resolved quickly.
With the new school year starting, school funding stands at the forefront of discussion. The budget approved by the legislature contains several increases in funding for our public schools, higher education schools and education programs.
Pennsylvania has 500 school districts. The Pennsylvania Constitution mandates the Legislature to provide for the “maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth” (Article III, Section 14). The Commonwealth Court has recently handed down an opinion finding the Legislature is not providing for public education as it should.
While the new budget may not be where it should be, it is a step in the right direction. With a politically divided legislature, new spending on education is a good thing.
Basic education funding for our public schools will see an increase of $567 million. The Level Up Program, which seeks to assist the lowest-spending school districts, will see a $100 million increase. Special education will receive a $50 million increase, and Early Intervention Programs will have a $10 million increase. Pre-K Counts and Head Start Supplemental Assistance are flat-funded in the budget.
Proper nutrition is important to helping our students learn. Many of us in the legislature have been pushing for free breakfast for students. School food services will receive a $46 million increase to provide universal free breakfast and allow all students receiving reduced lunch process to receive free lunches. We know that, in our area, there are many families that rely upon programs offered through the schools to enable their children to have a good meal.
Career and Technical Education continue to gain interest and momentum and are solid education choices for students. I have advocated for this education, and have encouraged people to look at the amazing opportunities that exist. When I was growing up, there was a belief that one had to attend college. Vocational-technical education was often seen as the only option for students who were not performing well in traditional educational programs.
Fortunately, we now recognize the inherent value in these jobs, which enable a student to succeed in a career offering great wages and benefits. Jobs in the fields taught at these schools are in high demand and these are good, life-sustaining jobs. Career and Technical Education will receive a $14 million increase in funding. There will also be a $9.45 million increase for Career and Technical Education Equipment Grants.
Unfortunately, the are budget decreases for school safety grants. $100 million of Federal ARPA funds will be put towards school-based mental health grants. There is also a decrease in the amount of funding going for physical safety grants. I am concerned about the decrease in funding for these matters.
Higher Education will receive funding increases in several areas. The PA State System of Higher Education will see a 6% increase in Education and General funding. Community Colleges will get a 2% bump for operating expenses, and flat funding for capital expenses. PHEAA Grants will see a $15.9 million increase.
A new appropriation is being made for Parent Pathways to support students who are parents at postsecondary institutions. New student teacher stipends will be increased by $10 million to support student teachers. This is an attempt to help incentivize students to enter the teaching profession. We know that teachers face many demands and that their numbers are decreasing.
The appropriations for the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, and Temple University remain unresolved at this time. This is a serious matter that must be resolved.
Please remember that school buses are on the roads again. The safe transport of our children is of the highest importance. It is never appropriate to drive by or around a school bus that is stopped and has its lights flashing. It is likewise never appropriate to ignore the 15-mile speed limit in school zones. Please be safe and look out for our little ones.