State Capitol

Shown is the Pennsylvania House of Representatives chamber in Harrisburg.

Lancaster County’s three poorest schools are set to get an extra boost in the 2021-22 state budget to prop up low-income districts following the COVID-19 pandemic, as part of a more than $6.5 billion investment in K-12 education.

The Ephrata Area School District, Columbia School District and School District of Lancaster are among the state’s 100 poorest school districts slated to receive a piece of a $100 million “Level Up” supplement using federal COVID-19 relief dollars. 

In addition to this increase, all county districts will each receive an increase as part of a $200 million increase in education spending. This is nowhere near the $1 billion Gov. Tom Wolf pitched in his February 2021-22 budget proposal, though House Republicans say they have received Wolf’s agreement on the full budget package.

Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster city, said on the House floor he would support the budget because of the $100 million investment program into the state’s poorest schools. This investment would help get the School District of Lancaster closer to getting equitably funded. With the “Level Up” supplement for the state’s lowest income schools and the state education funding increase, the district will receive an extra $3.3 million for a total $67 million.

This makes up about 10% of $25 million in additional funding the School District of Lancaster should be getting if all spending went through the basic education formula.

“Because we don’t fund education at the levels we should at a state level, there’s a lot left to be desired,” Sturla said. “I’ll be first to admit that I think this budget lacks a lot, but I’ve worked for the past seven years trying to get some form of ‘Level Up’ funding.”

Non-public schools, public school foundations and Pre-K programs also will get a $40 million increase under the budget plan unveiled Friday, making $225 million in tax credits available to businesses and corporations. Businesses can funnel a portion of their tax dollars into these tax credits to allow low-income students to attend a private or religious institution or a higher-performing public school.

Education committee chair Sen. Scott Martin, R-Martic Township authored sweeping legislation that had been fast-tracked to increase these tax credits and reform charter school regulations. Some of these tax credit increases were added to the state budget proposal, but the big charter school reforms are on the backburner until the fall.

Martin said late Friday he had “mixed feelings” about the state budget agreement, including about the funding split out from the rest of the education spending for the state’s poorest schools. He said he’s worried that an additional fund siphoning off money from using the main equity formula “distorts” the purpose of its use.

“Anytime I see more money going through the Basic Education Formula, it’s a good thing,” Martin said. “None of us will be happy until the [equitable funding formula] is fully funded.”

In the first round of federal coronavirus relief, Pennsylvania did not use its basic education formula to distribute its money. The basic education formula was enacted in 2016 to allocate all new education spending with consideration for whether a school is located in a rural area, if the area has high concentrations of poverty, and if students are native English speakers, among other criteria. The goal is to direct more funds to schools with higher needs that also serve communities without robust tax bases.

Instead, districts with the highest need received the least funding per student, according to a December analysis by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. If state officials had used the formula last year, the School District of Lancaster would’ve received an additional $1.5 million, and Columbia Borough School District would’ve received an extra $142,200, according to the report.

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