Needing the most, getting the least

Court considers PA’s school-funding formula

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 2/8/22

HARRISBURG, PA — Tattered textbooks. Dilapidated facilities.

Guidance counselors who only come in one day a week. Teachers who must purchase classroom supplies out of their own pocket. …

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Needing the most, getting the least

Court considers PA’s school-funding formula

Posted

HARRISBURG, PA — Tattered textbooks. Dilapidated facilities.

Guidance counselors who only come in one day a week. Teachers who must purchase classroom supplies out of their own pocket. Parents who organize fundraisers to let some students experience extracurricular activities like dances and field trips.

These sorts of conditions are standard fare across the commonwealth’s many underfunded school districts. After years of trying, advocates for reforming Pennsylvania’s school-funding formula have finally gotten their day in court.

For decades, PA has built up a poor reputation in the arena of public education funding. The commonwealth contributes notably less to schools than do the vast majority of states; it covered 38 percent of the state’s overall education costs in 2017-18, compared to the average contribution of 47 percent in other states.

Not only does it contribute less than most states, but plaintiffs in a landmark case argue that Pennsylvania divides its money for schools in a way that favors affluent districts while disadvantaging lower-income areas.

Part of every Pennsylvania school district’s budget comes from state funding; the other part comes from collecting property taxes. Wealthier neighborhoods collect more in property taxes, while more poverty-stricken neighborhoods collect less—despite having higher tax rates. This has created a lopsided situation that has earned PA the distinction of having the nation’s “most inequitable” schools, according to a report in 2018.

When Gov. Tom Wolf was first elected, he vowed to solve the crisis afflicting the state’s struggling school districts. After a new funding formula was instituted in 2016, however, subsequent years’ reports found that the disparities between high- and low-income school districts had grown rather than shrunk. State money for classroom costs decreased in that timeframe as well.

In November 2021, testifiers told the court that the school’s cost per student in the wealthiest district is nearly $5,000 higher than in the poorest.

So far, the court has heard weeks of testimony from both sides of the case. School officials have painted grim depictions of what it’s like to be a school district on the wrong end of the unequal system.

Panther Valley School District Superintendent David McAndrew, serving the anthracite region’s Carbon and Schuylkill counties, described 75 kindergarteners all having to share a single toilet; a high school locker room without working showers; and an elementary school with a leaky roof.

Even more trying than those subpar facilities, he said, is maintaining a staff of well-trained teachers, when his district’s starting salary is less than $38,000 a year. It’s hard to be competitive when neighboring districts have the funds to offer new teachers a starting salary of up to $60,000.

The shortcomings of the current formula have been highlighted even more distinctly during the pandemic. Panther Valley didn’t have the money to provide Chromebooks to its students when the state required learning to go 100 percent virtual. The district had to wait for federal funding to come through.

“I’m sitting here and I’m asking the state of Pennsylvania to help us,” McAndrew told the court. “Who else is there to ask?”

Nonprofit organization PA Schools Work held a press conference in early February to rally for better school funding ahead of Wolf’s budget proposal, scheduled for February 8.

Tomeo Sippio-Smith, a K-12 education policy expert, said that to ensure that all students in Pennsylvania are receiving an adequate education, public schools across the state need an additional $4.6 billion in funding.

Laura Sosik, a second-grade teacher in the Scranton School District, joined the press conference to “offer insight on what it’s like to be a teacher in a severely underfunded district.” Following budget cuts at the state level, her district has been forced to discontinue its pre-K program, close the school library and cut its music program. She said that the district is underfunded by $4,000 per student.

“Every time I enter my classroom, I see the effects of the state’s shortchanging of our schools,” Sosik said. “The students in my classroom aren’t any less capable than the students in other districts. The students in my classroom are going to change the world. It’s time for Pennsylvania to fund our schools.”

The plaintiffs in the case include six school districts, seven parents, the PA Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS) and the NAACP PA State Conference. Represented by the Education Law Center and O’Melveny & Myers LLP, they have filed suit against the PA Department of Education, the General Assembly and the governor. They’re hoping to show that the current funding system is unconstitutional.

“We are asking for a court order that will force the legislature to comply with the state constitution and ensure all students receive access to a high-quality public education,” according to the Public Interest Law Center’s website.

As state leaders now defend the quality of their educational policies, the trial is expected to extend well into February.

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