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February 22, 2024 12:14 am

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Rep. Jordan Harris: Before Pa. revisits voucher proposals it must address education inequality

Credit: Capital-Star photo by Peter Hall

Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
January 22, 2024

A fortnight before Gov. Josh Shapiro is due to deliver his second state budget address, the Pennsylvania House Democrats’ chief budget negotiator said lawmakers must address education equality in 2024.

State Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) said on Monday he’s confident that the General Assembly will step up to implement the recommendations of a bipartisan commission charged with drafting a plan to comply with the Commonwealth Court mandate to fix Pennsylvania’s public education funding system. 

But Harris, the House Appropriations Committee chairperson, said the state must reevaluate its education system on a broader level, including charter schools and programs that divert tax dollars to private school scholarships, to ensure that every student receives a quality education.

Nearly one year ago, Commonwealth Court President Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer ruled that the state’s reliance on property taxes to fund public schools is unconstitutional because it leaves students in less wealthy areas at a disadvantage. Republican lawmakers, who defended the funding scheme against the lawsuit by six school districts and parents, chose not to appeal. 

“When you look at the fact that there was no appeal of this decision, I think it shows that everybody agrees that something must be done,” Harris said during a question and answer session at a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon Monday in Harrisburg.

Earlier this month, the Basic Education Funding Commission adopted a report that says Pennsylvania needs to increase education spending by $5.4 billion over the next seven years to provide adequate funding for hundreds of school districts. Of that, about $300 million would be the responsibility of districts that have kept taxes lower despite educational shortfalls.

At the same time, the report said, the state should provide nearly $1 billion in tax relief for districts where property owners are taxed at the highest rates. It should also provide an additional $200 million through a formula updated to eliminate year-to-year fluctuations and spend $300 million more each year to improve school buildings.

Public education advocates who pursued the fair funding lawsuit on behalf of the districts and parents said they would not hesitate to go back to court if state officials failed to act.

“I think we have no choice but to give a firm answer to the Commonwealth Court’s ruling and to do the work that’s in the BEFC report,” Harris said. “I think there’s some other parts that will be added but I think … it’s something that we must do.”

During his remarks, Harris spoke about growing up in South Philadelphia and the path his grandmother followed, first as a single mother raising three children in the projects to the Community College of Philadelphia and a degree in early childhood education from Temple University. 

“Had CCP not existed and the programs that existed for my grandmother, the calculus of my life would have been totally different,” Harris said, noting that it led to his mother getting a degree and him earning two degrees. 

Asked what he would do as Appropriations Committee chairperson to achieve bipartisan support for the private school scholarship program expansion that Shapiro backed away from in his first budget last year, Harris said that would have to be part of a discussion about the full range of publicly funded education programs Pennsylvania offers.

“I’ve always been very clear on where I am on education and it’s based and rooted in the education that I received in the Philadelphia School District,” Harris, who was also a PSD and charter school teacher, said.

But he said lawmakers must evaluate how the state and local school districts manage publicly funded charter schools, noting that a report last year found that while there was no deliberate bias, there were concerning patterns in how Black-led charter schools were treated in Philadelphia. 

Harris also said the existing taxpayer-funded private school tuition programs – Education Investment Tax Credit and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit – lack accountability and have only recently directed money specifically to disadvantaged students.

“We have a quality education problem in this Commonwealth,” Harris said. “And I’ve always said our options are tools in the toolbox … So we actually have to look at all the tools.”

To do that, stakeholders in education must drop the view that they are in an adversarial relationship with those who have different opinions about how best to educate their children.

“We actually need everybody sitting down at a table. You need the district-run schools, you need the brick and mortar charters, the cyber charters, the private school sector, because these are all Pennsylvania’s children,” Harris said.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.