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Chester County Press

Avon Grove School Board takes a stance on Pa. public school funding

04/10/2024 10:58AM ● By Colleen Cochran

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, on Feb. 7, 2023, decided that the state’s method of funding public schools was unconstitutional because its reliance on property taxes discriminated against students who live in low-income districts. 

The Basic Education Funding Commission (BEFC), made up of twelve legislators from the state house and state senate and three officials from the governor’s administration, was charged with determining an equitable method for public school funding. On Jan. 11 of this year, it generated two reports. The report that received the most votes of approval identified that Basic Education Funding fell short by $5.4 billion, and it called for that amount to be made up over the next seven years. 

Both the majority report and the minority report acknowledge the inadequacy of current education funding, and they offer many similar solutions for tackling the problem. One of the ways in which they differ is that the minority report advocates public funding of non-public schools in that it proposes taxpayer-funded scholarships that allow students to opt to attend non-public schools. 

It is on that point that the Avon Grove School Board takes issue. At the March 21 meeting, the school board voted to approve its Fair Funding Resolution #24-10 in support of constitutional funding of public schools and opposed to funding of non-public schools. This resolution will be sent to legislative officials and the governor’s office.

Said Bonnie Wolff, board president, “Although the BEFC adopted the majority report, we don’t know whether the general assembly and Governor Shapiro will ultimately create and approve legislation based on that report. We want to make sure we let them know our stance.”

In the resolution, the school board states its reasons for opposing the scholarship program. One reason is because Pennsylvania law already provides for public school choice opportunities in the form of charter schools. Another reason is because the scholarship proposal allows for public funds to go to students who are neither low-income nor residing within the boundaries of low-achieving schools, and a program already exists in the form of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC)/Opportunity Student Tax Scholarship (OSTS) that provides taxpayer supported scholarships for low- and moderate-income students to attend non-public schools. Plus, no studies exist that indicate that those students who receive public funds from EITC/OSTS programs achieve better academic outcomes.

The overarching reason the board is opposed to the public funding of non-public schools is because the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court’s order calls only for fair funding of public schools. The school board’s resolution states, “…any program that diverts public money away from public schools and into non-public schools would make the court-ordered mandate for the fair funding of public schools more difficult to achieve.”

Although the Fair Funding Resolution passed at the meeting, not all members of the Avon Grove School Board were in favor of it. The vote was 5 to 3. 

Mike Woodin opposed the resolution because, he said, “I think it puts us into a divide in Harrisburg that I don’t think we need to get ourselves involved with.” 

He wrote an alternative resolution that he thought the board should consider, although he did not make an official motion to introduce the resolution or attempt to amend the existing resolution. Woodin’s resolution, in a nutshell, was a call for Harrisburg to work together to solve the budget dilemma at hand. 

He urged Governor Shapiro and the general assembly “to work together to enact legislation that includes both specific funding targets and a timeline for implementation, since failure to do so could result in further litigation at taxpayer expense.”

Woodin also expressed at the meeting some of the reasons he was against the resolution that was up for vote. He said that Avon Grove School District would not be impacted by the PASS Scholarship program because it is not a “low-achieving district,” meaning a district that is in the bottom 15 percent of math and reading scores among schools of its kind, and thus, its students would not be eligible for the program. Furthermore, he said, the program will not divert money away from school districts generally because even if a student leaves a district due to receiving a scholarship to attend a non-public school, public schools will still receive the same amount of funding.

He told the Chester County Press, “I do not believe that we, Avon Grove School Board, should advocate for this line item, as we have not advocated for other line items in Pennsylvania’s budget that do not impact our school district’s funding.”

Ken Roark also opposed the resolution. In fact, he did not support the BEFC’s majority report at all. He said he had spoken to a state representative by telephone, and was told that, in order to rectify school funding, the possibility existed for state taxes to be raised. He also had concerns that Chester County would not see much of the state funds that were proposed to be injected into the public school system.

He said, “Chester County is the wealthiest county in the state, and the biggest part of the money will be going to other places.”

Rick Dumont also gave a “no” vote on the resolution. He did not state his reason for his vote at the meeting.

Speaking in favor of the Fair Funding Resolution was Herman Engel. He urged fellow board members, “If you are in favor of asking the governor and the legislature to find bipartisan resolutions to fulfilling the court-ordered fair funding mandate by focusing on the items agreed upon by the funding commission, and if you are against sending hundreds of millions of dollars of unaccountable taxpayer money to private schools before the court order is fulfilled, then I ask for your vote in favor of the resolution, in support of constitutional funding of public schools and opposed to public funding of non-public schools.”

Dorothy Linn, Ed.D., vice president of the board, also spoke in favor of the resolution. She said, “I have a very strong belief that if we as a school board remain silent, we are silently agreeing that vouchers are okay to take money away from public education to fund private.”

In addition to Engel and Linn, other yea voters included Ruchira Singh, Nick Taylor, and Bonnie Wolff.

Bill Wood, who penned the adopted resolution, was not present at the meeting, and thus, he did not vote. He did, however, offer his opinion to the Chester County Press concerning his support for the BEFC’s majority report and the steps Governor Shapiro in his recent budget proposal is taking to rectify school funding. 

He said, “Governor Shapiro’s recent budget proposal this year asks for $1.2 billion to go toward public education. If fully approved, it would mean an additional $3.5 million for Avon Grove next year according to a chart included in the BEFC report.” 

He added, “It is unlikely that the governor will get as much as he asked for in his budget proposal. However, whatever the final number is, Avon Grove will be high up on the list of districts to receive additional funds because we have a relatively low per pupil expenditure and a very high reliance on our property tax base, which are the two factors used by the BEFC to determine the districts that are most in need of additional funds.”