A week ago today, several progressive faith leaders and I were arrested outside of the Senate office in Harrisburg. We were there because, despite a budget surplus of over $10 billion, lawmakers were only willing to allocate a $300 million increase to our commonwealth’s schools.
All children deserve great schools, regardless of race, ethnicity, or income. Like many states in our nation, Pennsylvania has a long way to go to ensure our schools are equitably funded. Pennsylvania ranks among the worst in the nation when it comes to funding wealthy children vs. low-income children. While some Pennsylvania students go to public schools that are among the best in the nation, too many lack access to a quality education.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has also laid bare how harmful this disparity is for low-income families and children struggling to maintain their education while dealing with the compounding health and economic crisis. This inequity is primarily caused by inadequate state funding, which covered only 36% of total costs (compared with 45% on average in states around the country) as of 2012. Local districts are tasked with making up the rest, placing low-income communities at a disadvantage.
It is a fight we’ve been waging for over a decade. We made some progress back in 2016 when organizers successfully pushed lawmakers in Harrisburg to pass the Fair Funding Formula. It was a small step in the right direction, but this only affected a fraction of total education spending in the state. The Fair Funding Formula has passed, but it is only used for new sources of income, which in 2019 represented 11.2% of the state’s education spending. The bulk share of school support continues to be allocated unfairly, resulting in persistent disparities between districts with larger numbers of students of color and predominantly white communities across the state.
Now, Pennsylvania has a budget surplus of over $10 billion, $3 billion of which came from lack of spending last year during the height of the COVID-19 crisis that led to higher than expected revenue, the rest coming from the over $7 billion in federal stimulus money.
Yet, the powers that be are only willing to offer just $300 million statewide (with $66 million expected to go to Philadelphia) — the bare minimum the city alone would need to bridge its gap in public education funding. With the deadlines to finalize the budget this week, we have a small window of time to ensure that the needs of this state’s most impoverished children are recognized and rectified, especially in the arena of education.
It is high time and arguably long overdue we ensure that our school system provides all of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s children with a high-quality education. That’s why we are urging our elected officials to push for $1 billion in funding at the bare minimum for our public schools. We have a long way to go to close the educational gap, but it’s an effort we must prioritize as a state if we want to secure a fair and equitable future for our children.
Nicolas O’Rourke is the organizing director of the Pennsylvania Working Families Party.