The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the critical role schools play in our communities. It also laid bare the gross disparities in resources available to students from one district to another, leaving no doubt that Pennsylvania’s system for funding education is broken and inflicting harm on hundreds of thousands of students in communities throughout the commonwealth.
When school buildings were closed a year ago, students in many wealthy communities seamlessly pivoted to remote learning and many have returned to in-person school. This was possible because they had district-issued laptops and iPads, small class sizes, buildings with space to allow for social distancing, and updated HVAC systems to ensure a healthy learning environment.
Students in many poor communities had a very different experience. For them laptops were a distant dream prior to the pandemic. They waited weeks or months to be connected to virtual learning. And today many of these same children continue to do their schooling from home as they watch their peers in neighboring well-funded districts experience the academic and social benefits of in-person learning. Large class sizes and old, poorly ventilated buildings prohibit their safe return to in-person school.
While the pandemic revealed the inequality and deprivation that hundreds of thousands of students in Pennsylvania experience, these problems are not new. Pennsylvania is notorious for having one of the nation’s most inequitable school funding systems, which leaves students who have the greatest needs with the fewest resources in their classrooms.
In Pennsylvania, a school funding lawsuit is set to go to trial in the upcoming months to demand that the legislature deliver on its constitutional duty to make sure that all students — not just those in wealthy districts — get the educational resources they need for a high-quality education that prepares them for life after graduation.
Pennsylvania ranks 44th in the nation for state share of school funding, with the commonwealth providing just 38% of K-12 funding; nationally, the norm is close to 50%. When the state is cheap, it puts enormous pressure on communities to fund their schools through property taxes. Wealthy communities can easily raise local dollars to fund their schools. But poor communities struggle to raise the local funding their students need, even when they have among the highest property tax rates in the commonwealth.
And while Pennsylvania’s Basic Education Funding (BEF) formula provides weighted student funding for districts with higher levels of need, just 11% of education spending is distributed using this formula, shortchanging districts that are the least able to provide students with essential resources.
Governor Wolf’s 2021-2022 budget proposal for education is a recognition that Pennsylvania must do something fundamentally different in order that all students, regardless of where they live, have the resources they need to receive an education that will allow them to thrive and succeed in school today and live productive, fulfilling lives after graduation.
Gov. Wolf’s proposal would increase school funding by $1.4 billion, allocate of all basic education dollars through the state’s formula, and ensure that all 500 districts receive additional funding. Wolf’s is the first serious attempt in Harrisburg to make real the hope that Pennsylvania’s school funding formula would actually close the opportunity gaps that disproportionately harm hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania’s historically underserved students, including many students of color, students living in poverty, students with disabilities, English learners, and others.
This proposed school funding increases would be paid for by asking the wealthiest Pennsylvanians to pay a little more in personal income taxes. Increased state revenue for education would dramatically relieve pressure on local property taxes to fund schools, curbing the legislature’s longstanding practice of forcing tax increases to pay for education down the food chain to local school districts.
State officials in Harrisburg have direct responsibility for the underfunding of education and the unconscionable inequality in Pennsylvania’s public schools.
The General Assembly can adopt Governor Wolf’s bold proposal and make a commitment to increasing funding for all schools at a level that will allow them to prepare students for a productive life after graduation.
Or, leaders of the General Assembly can continue to act as if children in low wealth districts do not matter, narrowing and limiting students’ futures and the future of the commonwealth — and wait until the courts force the state to remedy this.
Susan Spicka is the executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania. She writes from Shippensburg.
- Education notebook – Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
- California – Ravenwoode: Offering appreciation to health, education officials – Lake County News
- Education News – Texarkana Gazette
- US Department of Education Releases “COVID-19 Handbook, Volume 2: Roadmap to Reopening Safely and Meeting All Students’ Needs” | US – U.S. Department of Education
- The more you learn, the more you earn: education and poverty alleviation in Thailand – UN News
- Dep’t of Education issues emergency order waiving test requirement for seniors, series of adjustments – Florida Politics
- D.C. mayor proposes boost in education spending as she calls on schools to fully reopen in the fall – The Washington Post
- Faculty invited to apply to General Education Scholar Program | Penn State University – Penn State News
- US Department of Education Announces More Biden-Harris Appointees | US – U.S. Department of Education