This week, School District of Philadelphia representatives began their testimony in a historic school funding lawsuit, joining fellow Pennsylvanians to call for overdue improvements in the state’s inequitable school funding system. Pennsylvania’s funding system is unconstitutional and must be changed now.
Just like the plaintiffs in six other Pennsylvania school districts, Philadelphians have seen firsthand how decades of state underfunding impact students and the economic health of our city. Compared with other states, Pennsylvania’s school funding system contributes considerably less to local school districts, putting the burden on those communities to raise what they can to ensure that students have the resources and supports to succeed in the 21st century. The result is an education system that overwhelmingly disadvantages low-income students and students of color and exacerbates existing inequities by short-funding communities already suffering from poverty and systemic racism.
Our schools should be providing supports to help lift young people out of poverty, but instead, far too often, this funding system cuts off access to such resources as college prep, vocational training, and higher-level STEM curricula.
These are realities that Philadelphia students have faced for years. A recent study by Penn State professor Matt Kelly estimates that the gap between what Philadelphia is spending on schools and what it needs for all students to graduate on time and be college- and career-ready is $1.1 billion. These funds would be enough to bring on more essential school staff like librarians and school nurses and implement key strategies we know help students learn, achieve, and grow.
Quality education is the cornerstone of economic mobility and crucial to our endeavor to eliminate poverty. Despite our efforts, we still have one of the poorest big cities in America. That’s why Philadelphia continues to prioritize education despite chronic funding issues stemming from the state’s antiquated system for appropriations. Over the last six years, the Kenney administration and City Council have increased local support for the district. Together, we increased the city’s contribution to the district by $150 million, more than doubling the contribution, while local tax revenues increased by nearly $375 million.
We’ve also created new revenue to offer free, quality pre-K to thousands of students every year and expanded programs and supports at 17 community schools. The city additionally funds quality out-of-school time programs, career readiness opportunities, and case management supports.
Philadelphia’s philanthropic and business communities are also champions of our schools. While neighboring school districts with more resources quickly pivoted to online learning during the pandemic, Philadelphia schools relied on additional city and private support to purchase Chromebooks and launch PHLConnectED, which provides free internet to pre-K-12 students.
None of this has been easy, and this is the inherent flaw in Pennsylvania’s school funding system. It puts a tremendous burden on already stretched-thin city budgets and adds challenges for our students, as we can never hope to fill the gap alone. Due to these factors creating a gaping chasm in equity, the school funding lawsuit argues that this state system violates the Pennsylvania Constitution.
We are grateful for and proud of the ways that Philadelphians step up to support their schools every day, year after year. And while our city has made great progress because of these efforts, we still have unacceptable levels of poverty and not enough resources to fund our schools. All children deserve a quality education with adequate class sizes, social-emotional supports, extracurriculars, and safe facilities.
In Philadelphia, we will continue to step up to the plate and do our part, but we need Harrisburg to do right by all Pennsylvania students — including the children in our city. The current state funding system does a grave disservice to our children. We don’t need to wait for the trial’s verdict to do this work. We call on the Pennsylvania General Assembly to take a bold step to close the $4.6 billion gap between student needs and district resources statewide, starting with the 2022-2023 state budget. Our children are our future, and now, more than ever, we need to provide for them.
Jim Kenney is the 99th mayor of Philadelphia. Darrell L. Clarke is the president of Philadelphia City Council.