Negotiations on the Commonwealth’s 2021-2022 state budget seemed to finish much like they started – with policymakers seeking to use the perfect combination of expected state tax revenues, a surprising state surplus, and a boatload of federal COVID-19 relief dollars to create the right mix of stabilizing current programs, making new investments in key priorities, and banking significant funding for the future.
All in, the state spending plan agreed to by the General Assembly and likely to be signed by the Governor totals just shy of $40 billion.
Perfect or right is in the eyes of the beholder, but with or without a green eyeshade, the fiscal blueprint for the coming year is balanced and it does some really good things.
On the education front, it’s definitely worth noting the $300 million increase for basic education, including $100 million more for the state’s poorest school districts. However, it’s even more important to credit the General Assembly for resisting calls to cut funding for public cyber charter schools.
While the COVID-19 pandemic compounded the challenges confronting struggling school districts, it also made very clear just how much long-established, full-time virtual public schools are needed. In fact, the legislature’s decision to uphold public cyber charter schools is not surprising given the results of a bipartisan statewide February 2021 poll that said 69 percent of respondents support the use of online public cyber charter schools as part of Pennsylvania’s educational landscape.
Underscoring the importance of school options for children in K-12 was not the only important outcome of the 2021-2022 budget process. State legislators also successfully navigated significant philosophical issues to ensure that thousands of Pennsylvania students will get essential tuition assistance to attend the University of Pittsburgh this fall.
The General Assembly appropriated more than $150 million that will translate into a savings of $14,000 for future Panthers who reside in the commonwealth. This was a huge win for these families, and an important endorsement of one of our most prized educational resources.
It may not be a tale as old as time, but the battle between “spenders” and “savers” is certainly very familiar. It won’t be long before the decisions of 2021 are old news, and the focus becomes what do we spend and what do we save in 2022-2023. One thing’s for sure, whatever budget thrill seeking policy makers look to do, it won’t be from the edge of a fiscal cliff. That’s good news that never gets old.