Senate Budget Hearings – Key Points

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Department of Education

Return to In-Person Instruction is Essential for Students

Acting Secretary Noe Ortega pledged again to continue working to return students to in-person instruction as safely as possible and as soon as possible. Less than 31 percent of schools are currently conducting classes fully online. A Senate hearing earlier this month included testimony from teachers, superintendents, students, parents and other key stakeholders who highlighted the need to get kids back in the classroom. Senate Republicans also raised concerns about the lasting impacts of continued learning disruptions on vulnerable populations during COVID-19.

Using Federal Stimulus Funding Wisely

Senators asked how the influx of new, one-time federal funds can be used responsibly by school districts to ensure new funding gaps are not created in future budgets. They stressed the need for the department to work with the General Assembly to ensure that the $10.9 billion in federal stimulus for education is used for one-time costs – such as capital projects and lead abatement – not recurring costs that will leave school districts with future holes in their budgets.

Providing Fair Funding for Schools

Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Pat Browne (R-16) questioned the Wolf Administration’s plan to completely change the platform by which we distribute education dollars to school districts. Senators said the governor’s plan disregards the factors and reasons developed by a the bi-partisan, bi-cameral Basic Education Funding Commission that based its formula on testimony and input from experts in the education field.  The plan was passed unanimously by both the Senate and House of Representatives and signed into law by the Governor.

Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education

During a public hearing on the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), members of the Senate Appropriations Committee questioned Chancellor Daniel Greenstein if the $244.5 million in federal stimulus funds will support the long-term goal of affordability and fiscal accountability. Greenstein also fielded questions on whether dual enrollment would benefit potential college students, graduation rates, and the introduction of new programs to meet workforce development needs. 

Plan to Redesign PASSHE Remains on Track

PASSHE is continuing to make progress on its system redesign plans and expects to present its proposal next month, with phased implementation set for fall of 2022. The plan to unite several universities within geographic regions – which was made possible by legislation championed by Senators Scott Martin (R-13) and Tommy Tomlinson (R-6) – is designed to better meet the needs of students and reduce the cost of a college degree. However, a number of Senators raised frustrations that many overperforming universities are being penalized as more resources go to underperforming schools. They were also concerned about declining enrollments.