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Pa. school funding is ‘unconstitutional.’ Here are four steps to fix it.

As the commission set to determine new school funding levels starts public hearings, show up and demand they meet these four criteria.

Supporters participate during a school funding rally on the steps of the Capitol Building in Harrisburg in 2021.
Supporters participate during a school funding rally on the steps of the Capitol Building in Harrisburg in 2021.Read more

As Pennsylvania students return to school this fall, they’ll be greeted by teachers trying their best to provide excellent learning opportunities in a state public education system that has been ruled unconstitutional. What many parents, citizens, and advocates don’t realize, however, is that this fall also offers a once-in-a-generation policy window for fixing our commonwealth’s inadequate and inequitable school funding system.

Earlier this year, Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer ruled that Pennsylvania’s funding system violates the state constitution’s education clause, which guarantees a “thorough and efficient” public education system. She also found that the system discriminates against students in low-wealth districts — relegating them to what lawyers defending the status quo called “the McDonald’s track.”

Because the state declined to appeal Judge Jubelirer’s ruling, her decision is now final, as is her charge: “It is now the obligation of the Legislature, Executive Branch, and educators, to make the constitutional promise a reality in this Commonwealth.”

» READ MORE: Kids on the supposed ‘McDonald’s track’ are living in a rigged system | Opinion

In his March budget address, Gov. Josh Shapiro said the ruling was a “call to action” and challenged legislators: “Her remedy was for us to get around the table and come up with a solution that ensures every child has access to a thorough and efficient education … And that means we are all acknowledging that the court has ordered us to come to the table and come up with a better system, one that passes constitutional muster. I’m ready to meet you there.”

The Basic Education Funding Commission is that “table” the governor alluded to, around which members of his administration and legislators will gather to develop a remedy to the lawsuit.

The education funding commission, previously created by statute, consists of 12 legislators, made up of equal numbers from each party and each legislative chamber, and three representatives of the governor. It will hold a series of 10 hearings across Pennsylvania over the course of eight weeks, starting on Sept. 12 in Allentown, and will issue a report in coming months with its recommendations for Shapiro and the General Assembly.

How should the public evaluate the success of the Basic Education Funding Commission in fulfilling its constitutional duty? PA Schools Work, a statewide public education advocacy coalition (of which my organization, Teach Plus, is a part), has laid out four criteria for success that can function as a “report card” for this critical work. Here are four steps to get there:

First, for all 500 districts, the Basic Education Funding Commission must set adequacy targets — goals for funding levels for each district based on spending benchmarks from high-performing districts, adjusted to factor in the additional costs of educating students facing additional barriers such as poverty, disability, or learning English. We won’t be able to assess our progress toward reaching constitutional muster without first setting clear and evidence-based benchmarks for the cost of providing a “comprehensive, effective, and contemporary education” for every child in Pennsylvania — regardless of where they live.

Second, the Basic Education Funding Commission must include resources for pre-K, special education, facilities, and transportation in its plan — all important factors in an adequate and equitable education that were discussed extensively by Judge Jubelirer. Therefore, the commission must go beyond basic education funding as it has been historically defined and incorporate these factors to fully address the lawsuit. In the overall funding targets it sets, the Basic Education Funding Commission should include the estimated costs of expanding pre-K, fully funding special education, ensuring facilities are safe and modern, and providing transportation.

Third, the Basic Education Funding Commission must set targets for the “state share” of overall funding targets. Pennsylvania’s state share of overall education funding is one of the lowest in the country, and many of the inequities in the current system are driven by the inability of low-wealth districts to raise enough revenue locally to adequately fund schools. The state must determine a fair share of overall education funding it will provide to close these gaps, keeping in mind each district’s ability to raise local funding, and commit to funding the state share.

Finally, the education funding commission must create a plan, with a reasonable timeline, for the state to implement this change. This plan should start with the 2024-25 state budget and require no more than three to five years to reach full implementation and pass constitutional muster. It should also include increases in state funding to keep pace with inflation in future years.

If the Basic Education Funding Commission fails to meet any of the above criteria, it will have failed to fulfill its constitutional duty. It’s critical that Pennsylvanians continue to pay attention — including attending hearings and submitting written comments — to ensure policymakers meet this moment with the gravity it deserves.

This is not the time for mere tinkering with the funding formula. Only transformative, ambitious reform will ensure that our public schools, in the very near future, are able to give every child an excellent education.

Laura Boyce is the executive director of Teach Plus Pennsylvania and a former teacher and principal.