Pa. lawmakers have neglected their duty to quality education across the state | Opinion
For decades, Pennsylvania lawmakers have shunned their responsibilities when it comes to school funding, severely shortchanging many school districts.
For decades, Pennsylvania lawmakers have shunned their responsibilities when it comes to school funding, severely shortchanging many school districts. The result is grave inequities that have impacted generations of students.
In a trial that begins on Nov. 12, a group of petitioners is challenging the state funding system in Commonwealth Court. Petitioners include six school districts, two statewide associations, and several parents. This trial will determine whether Pennsylvania’s school funding system meets constitutional standards. We will demonstrate that state officials are failing to provide a “thorough and efficient” education system and violating the state constitution’s equal protection provisions.
To achieve equity, we need adequate resources in all our schools — supported by adequate state funding.
The resource disparities between Pennsylvania school districts are huge. There is also a glaring gap between the available funding and what students need to be prepared for life after school.
Thirteen years ago, state lawmakers established a method to calculate how much funding was necessary to ensure all schoolchildren can succeed. Based on this state law, Pennsylvania districts now need at least an additional $4.6 billion annually to adequately educate our children.
The extent of underfunding was documented by Penn State professor Matthew Kelly in an expert report for the court case. In more than half the state’s districts, the “adequacy gap” between available funds and what’s needed is $2,000 or more per child. That means large class sizes, bare-bones resources, and diminished educational experiences.
Though educators give their all to positively impact children’s lives, leaders of underfunded districts are reduced to a heartbreaking kind of triage.
As the superintendent of Greater Johnstown School District has explained, schools in low-wealth communities like hers have to operate in outdated or run-down facilities and are lacking in essential school personnel, such as teachers, therapists, aides, and reading specialists.
For too long, the state legislature has neglected its constitutional duties to assure a quality education in low-wealth districts in Pennsylvania. The legislature could have — but hasn’t — bolstered school funding to distribute resources adequately and equitably to districts. Instead, across the state, the quality of education depends on the local tax base, and a child’s opportunities strongly correlate to their zip code.
Cash-strapped districts often have among the highest tax rates but still lack capacity to provide the basics — a well-rounded curriculum and materials; up-to-date technology; safe, well-ventilated buildings; staffing and social supports to meet the needs of children impacted by poverty and trauma; language supports for immigrant children.
Pennsylvania contributes only a 38% share of total education costs versus the national average of 47%, according to the latest U.S. Census data. Local communities must make up the difference. Only five states contribute a smaller percentage. The state is not leveling the playing field.
Black and brown students are concentrated in the underfunded districts most hurt by the state’s irrational, inequitable funding system.
Some assert that Pennsylvania does enough because combined state and local per pupil education spending is above the national average. But that statewide figure is boosted by heavy spending of affluent communities — and extraordinary effort by low-wealth communities. It masks some of the deepest disparities between low- and high-wealth districts found anywhere in the country.
National rankings of states’ total spending levels ignore the economic realities of schoolchildren in low-wealth districts, the fact that Pennsylvania has appropriately chosen to set rigorous academic standards for its students and schools, and our regional context. The cost of delivering education services is higher in the Northeast than in the South or Midwest. Nearby states spend heavily on education — Pennsylvania ranks 7th out of 9 Northeast states in per pupil funding, according to census data. Our schools must compete in that regional market.
When education spending in many districts is far from adequate to support student success, the result is academic outcomes that are profoundly unequal.
The duty is clear for our state lawmakers: Fund schools sufficiently so students have the support and preparation they need to participate in today’s economy and democracy.
Whether the legislature acts on its own or because of a court order declaring the system unconstitutional, Pennsylvania’s elected representatives must build an education system for the 21st century, ensuring that the state’s 1.7 million students graduate ready to thrive and realize their potential. For children across Pennsylvania — from Philadelphia to Erie, from the Mon Valley to the Lehigh Valley — this is a fundamental issue of equity.
Deborah Gordon Klehr is executive director of the Education Law Center. ELC, along with the Public Interest Law Center and pro bono counsel O’Melveny, represents petitioners in Pennsylvania’s funding lawsuit. For more information, go to FundOurSchoolsPA.org.