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Gov. Tom Wolf has asked for a major increase in school funding, but some lawmakers wonder whether more money is really the solution to improving students’ academic performance,

HARRISBURG — State lawmakers grilled Pennsylvania’s education department secretary Monday about Gov. Tom Wolf’s record request for school spending in the latest round of budget hearings at the state Capitol.

Inquiries focused on the governor’s request for a $1.55 billion increase in basic education spending, with some Republicans casting doubt as to whether more funding is the solution for improving students’ academic performance.

Strategies for workforce recruitment and retention were another area of focus for lawmakers concerned about shortages of teachers, bus drivers and more. Investments in early childhood education, remediating school buildings with toxic infrastructure and the use of federal pandemic relief funding all were discussed during the four-plus hour meeting.

State Rep. Torren Ecker, R-Adams/Cumberland, and Rep. Natalie Mihalek, R-Allegheny/Washington, each separately pointed to a performance-based budget report from Pennsylvania’s Independent Fiscal Office. In it, the office noted there was “little to no correlation” between student performance on school assessments and spending per pupil.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal calls for a $1.55 billion increase in basic education funds for public schools. Last year, the final budget added $400 million. The lawmakers questioned why more money would be a solution for under-performing academic achievement. Mihalek noted some districts with poor scores spend well above the state average per-pupil costs.

“We need to make sure there is a solid justification for this ask,” Mihalek told Education Secretary Noe Ortega.

Ortega said “resources and certain factors” do factor into student performance, particularly in special education. The Independent Fiscal Office conclusion doesn’t consider all factors, Ortega said, including successes beyond assessment results like moving into careers and being productive citizens. Fixed costs aren’t considered in spending-per-pupil calculations, either, such as salaries and benefits, Ortega said.

State Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland, asked the department if it could require schools with toxic infrastructure like lead paint and asbestos to use federal pandemic relief funding on remediation. Few reimbursements have been sought for the funding so far. Hannah Barrick, deputy for the education department’s Office of Administration, said many schools are taking on such projects with those funds but didn’t say whether the state could mandate. The funds are from the federal government and have an approved set of regulations and restrictions.

On a question from state Rep. Stephen Kinsey, D-Philadelphia, Ortega said the labor shortage extends beyond teachers and bus drivers. There are shortages on support staff and mental health professionals, he said, adding that the challenge is comprehensive across a school’s workforce.

Ortega suggested policy solutions like relaxing some criteria for entering the education career field.

“As we think about the importance of promoting more educators into the field,” Ortega said later in the hearing on a related topic, “it’s got to come with making sure they feel like it’s a pathway to the middle class, which is what drew many people in the beginning into the career.”

Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver, R-Northumberland/Snyder, asked about the proposed $60 million increase for Pennsylvania Pre-K Counts, which is a half-day and full-day program for children ages 3 and 4.

Tracey Campanini, deputy secretary of the Office of Child Development and Early Learning, said the funds would allow 2,300 more children to enroll. The current funding served about 40% of income-eligible children. She couldn’t say how many might be on waitlists.

Culver pointed out that the budget proposal calls for increases in rates paid to providers. Campanini said the funds would allow for investments in recruitment and retention, and that eligibility extends beyond school-based programs to private schools, child care providers and others that might be at a financial disadvantage.

As lawmakers demanded greater accountability from school leaders for both academic achievement and fiscal stewardship, Ortega received criticism himself.

House Appropriations Chair Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York, began the hearing by asking why a letter he sent the department nearly three months ago went unanswered. He sought answers to questions about $150 million in pandemic funds available to nonpublic schools.

Saylor also was critical about the department’s late release of student and school performance on state assessments administered in 2021, and noted how lawmakers were given nearly no time to review Ortega’s written testimony since it was delivered about an hour before the hearing.

“It seems like one thing after another the Department of Education has had trouble dealing with,” Saylor said.

Rep. John Lawrence, R-Chester/Lancaster, demanded an apology from Ortega for insinuating in a letter to Tamaqua Area school board members that they risked personal litigation for decisions they made as elected officials with respect to COVID-19 mask mandates. Lawrence said established case law protects school board members from such litigation, and noted the mandates were overturned shortly after the district received the letter.

“I stand by what we were trying to do at the time with the mandate. That is to protect the health and safety of our students and our teachers to be in in-person learning,” Ortega said.

While critical at the outset, Saylor closed the hearing by complimenting Ortega and department staff for their work. He demanded Republican and Democrat lawmakers do more to hold local school boards and superintendents accountable for poor student academic performance, and said the state might want to look at pulling certifications of superintendents in perpetual problem districts.

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