A $25 million private gift to the Abington School District and the strings attached to it ignited a firestorm in suburban Philadelphia. Critics are echoing the slogan "Our schools are not for sale" – a rallying cry familiar to students and parents in underfunded districts like Philadelphia that have struggled to respond to years of inadequate funding.
The specific terms of the gift in the Abington controversy may be unusual, but private fund-raising efforts to pay for public education are not. They are on the rise in this region and elsewhere across the country.
The current proliferation of education-focused foundations, GoFundMe pages, privately supported capital campaigns, and other initiatives to raise dollars for unmet educational needs collectively tell a story: Inadequate funding is a central problem for most school districts in our state. A few weeks ago, DonorsChoose.org, a crowdfunding website for school and classroom projects, received a $29 million donation to fulfill a number of education requests around the country.
Even in solidly middle-class Abington, a district ranked 150th out of 500 in the state in per-pupil spending in 2016, finding the funds to renovate an aging high school building or update STEM curriculum offerings is a challenge. Imagine the difficulty faced by some of the 350 Pennsylvania school districts that are not as well-funded as Abington. Philadelphia schools, for example, have to make do with $3,200 less per student than Abington while dealing with overcrowded classrooms, crumbling buildings, and a lack of basic resources. In a school with 600 children, that's a $1.9 million difference. It is no surprise that districts, schools, and educators are scrambling for other sources of revenue.
The crux of the problem is the paltry share of education costs covered by the state. Pennsylvania ranks 47th out of the 50 states, according to census data, in the portion of education spending covered by state funds. The state provides only 37 percent of total K-12 education spending in Pennsylvania, 10 percentage points below the national average for states.
With most of the burden of raising revenue for schools falling on local districts, disparities in local wealth and property values end up determining how well-resourced our school districts are and the quality of education provided to students. As a result, Pennsylvania has been cited as having the widest gap in education spending between wealthy and poor districts of any state in the nation.
Private philanthropy isn't the way to fix these disparities. It's hit or miss – an underfunded school or district shouldn't have to worry about whether any of its graduates become billionaires to meet its students' needs. Under-resourced, under-performing schools and districts serving low-income communities are the ones with the greatest needs, but also may have the hardest time attracting donations.
Instead, addressing the inequities and inadequacy of education funding requires good, consistent public policy. That's why the Education Law Center — along with our partners at the Public Interest Law Center — is suing the state on behalf of families, school districts, and two statewide organizations, demanding that the state fund our schools in a manner consistent with its constitutional obligations. And for the first time, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the question of whether Pennsylvania's school funding is adequate and equitable is a matter that the courts can decide. Our case should be moving to trial soon, but legislators and state officials have made objections that Commonwealth Court is considering.
We know that time is of the essence for all our public-school children. Every day our case is delayed is another day tens of thousands of Pennsylvania's children spend in under-resourced schools, without the basic supports they need and are legally entitled to receive. We cannot afford to lose all their incredible potential. This is a problem that only our elected officials can fix.
If we see education as a public good that should be available to all children, our elected officials need to fund our schools accordingly and relieve the growing pressure on educators to depend on private philanthropy.
Deborah Gordon Klehr is executive director of the Education Law Center.