Fighting for fair education funding03/22/2022 01:04AM ● By Steven Hoffman
A court case that has the potential to bring sweeping changes to how public schools in Pennsylvania are funded reached a pivotal point on March 10 as closing arguments took place in William Penn School District, et al. v. Pennsylvania Department. of Education, et al.
At the heart of this lawsuit is a claim by school districts, parents, and several statewide organizations that the commonwealth’s school funding system is so unfair that it violates the Pennsylvania Constitution. Billions of dollars for public schools could be at stake.
Residents in the Oxford Area School District probably understand the inherent unfairness of the state’s current education funding system better than anyone. Oxford Area School District residents pay significantly higher taxes than people who reside in neighboring school districts, yet the total funding for schools is tens of millions of dollars less than neighboring schools like Kennett, Avon Grove and Unionville-Chadds Ford. One major reason for this: During the last three decades, Pennsylvania has allowed the percentage of total education funding that it provides to public schools to decline significantly.
At one time, the state’s share accounted for more than 50 percent of the total funding; now, for some school districts, the state funds less than one-third of the annual costs. This has shifted the burden of funding schools to local residents. It has also created an environment where some school districts are perpetually under-funded—the Oxford Area School District is one such district.
On March 15, just five days after the closing arguments concluded in the education funding trial in the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, a rally for fair education funding took place outside the Penn’s Grove Middle School in Oxford. It was one of several dozen vigils and rallies that took place across the state that day as part of a coordinated effort to demand more adequate education funding for Pennsylvania’s students.
Donna Cooper, the executive director of Children First, Nelly Jimenez, the executive director of ACLAMO, Kristin Grasso, a parent and special education advocate, Shelley Meadowcroft, a parent who resides in East Nottingham Township, and Laurie Shannon-Bailey, an equitable education funding advocate, all spoke at the rally.
“Oxford is a school district that is severely underfunded by the state,” Cooper told the crowd. She explained that inadequate funding from the state directly translated to shortages in funding for many schools throughout the Commonwealth, creating a large gap between wealthy school districts and less wealthy ones. As a consequence, Cooper explained, where you live determines the quality of the education that is available to students.
Raul Toledo was one of the parents from Oxford Area School District who turned out for the rally. He has a child in Elk Ridge School. He said that the schools need the resources to meet the needs of students, and he wanted to come out to support the fair funding of schools.
“The students deserve a good education,” he said.
Overall, Pennsylvania’s share of K-12 education funding is around 38 percent—that ranks 45th out of 50 states in the U.S. On average, states across the U.S. contribute 47 percent of education funding for K-12 public schools. Pennsylvania is underfunding its public schools by more than $4.6 billion. The inadequate funding impacts most students and school districts across the state—428 out of 500 school districts lack the resources they need to meet academic standards, according to a benchmark written in state law. Since 2008, Pennsylvania state law has set a benchmark for calculating the resources that schools need so that their students have a shot at reaching state academic standards. This target for adequate funding was developed in a bipartisan process, and weighted to account for students with greater needs, such as students living in poverty. The law says that the state should calculate how much school districts need to reach this target each year—but they have not done so for years.
Here in Chester Chester County, nine of the twelve school districts would qualify as being underfunded, according to current state laws. The average Oxford Area School District student was shorted by about $7,039 annually. In the Avon Grove School District, students are being shorted about $4,109 annually. Meanwhile, in the Kennett Consolidated School District, students are being shorted about $5,018 annually.
Pennsylvania students, teachers, and parents see the impact of schools being underfunded every day: classrooms and schools without the basics and students with needs that schools are unable to meet, solely because of a lack of funding. That funding equates to teachers and counselors, nurses and librarians, computers and STEM labs, and additional art, music, or sports offerings. The additional funding also means smaller class sizes and remedial help for children who are struggling to learn.
“Pennsylvania fails to adequately fund too many school districts across the state,” said Grasso. “Our local residents, especially our seniors, can’t afford higher taxes.”
If Pennsylvania met even the national average for the percentage of total K-12 funding, schools like Oxford would have many additional resources, and there would be less of a tax burden for local residents.
Meadowcroft explained that the purpose of the rally was to raise awareness about the need for a more equitable system of school funding. She hopes that the education funding trial will produce a result that will bring about a positive change for students and taxpayers across the state.
“This lawsuit is pushing the legislature to find a better funding formula for our schools,” Meadowcroft said. “I have friends who live in East Goshen, who pay less for school taxes than I do, and their schools are way better funded. That's because they live in a high-wealth area with a large corporate tax base. Those two things can change a school district drastically.”
Meadowcroft talked about what additional funding could mean for students in the Oxford Area School District.
“Our educators do amazing work with limited resources when compared to other schools in our area,” Meadowcroft said.
She said that, with more resources, positive results for students will follow.
“These resources can look like more teachers to create smaller class sizes, or more paraprofessionals to help within a class or with one specific child with special needs, more custodians to help keep our schools safe and healthy, more ESL teachers to work with our students,” she said. “It can increase educator compensation so we can retain more educators and fill our vacant positions, it can be to pay for permanent substitutes in our schools so we aren't short-staffed so often, and so much more. It can be resources that enhance our curriculum like books and technology in the classrooms and around the school district.”
Schools across the country are also working to help students make up the ground that was lost during the pandemic. Meadowcroft said that the additional funding for schools could help them provide all the extra supports and resources that students need to overcome the educational and emotional impact of the pandemic.
“I believe that more mental health professionals is always a great investment, especially with our children coming out of the last two years of a pandemic,” she said. “There are so many social and emotional needs that have been intensified by COVID. That can be more school counselors, school psychologists, or school social workers. It can even be or more programs for students to do within the schools. If you look at the amount of time a school counselor has in one day, and then the number of kids they have in their school who have a variety of issues and concerns, the time isn't there for one person to be able to reach every kid that needs it. These issues can range from bullying, not having enough food at home, parents who are getting divorced, not living with their parents because of trauma or violence, having thoughts of suicide or depression, and so much more.”
Meadowcroft added, “The funding can also go to things as simple as seat cushions in a classroom for comfortable floor time in the lower grades. My daughter's teacher applied for a grant to buy floor cushions for her class, but classroom rugs and such could be paid for with school funds so that kids aren't sitting on a cold floor while trying to concentrate and learn. And let's not forget the facilities part of what funding can be used for—no matter the age of a building, it needs maintenance. I think that COVID brought a lot of HVAC and air quality issues to light in schools across the country. When you look at $7,000 per kid, and the cost of what just a few of these examples cost a year, it isn't going to get us all of the resources and supports that we need, but it will change the lives of our students. And this is without our local residents, especially our senior citizens, having to bear the burden of higher taxes.”
The best ways for the gap to be closed between wealthy and poor school districts, the speakers at the rally said, are for the state to fully fund its share of K-12 education, and for additional funding to be targeted toward schools that need it most.
“We are here because all students aren’t getting the quality education that they deserve,” said Laurie Shannon-Bailey, who works at the Coatesville Area Juvenile Alliance. She has been working to get school boards, municipal governments, county governments, and community and civic organizations to adopt a resolution in support of the education funding lawsuit.
A decision regarding the lawsuit could be delivered this summer. All the speakers at the event were optimistic that positive changes are coming.
“As parents and as taxpayers, we know our children deserve better,” said Meadowcroft. “Now is the time to do better.”