Invest In Our Future As A State
The state of Pennsylvania’s schools — and how we fund them — was once again at the forefront in this year’s elections. The voters responded by reelecting Gov. Tom Wolf, who ran on his commitment to fully and adequately invest in public education. With the election behind us, it is time for Gov. Wolf and the legislature to deliver the resources needed so all Pennsylvania students are prepared for college or a career. It is a vital investment. To understand how funding levels affect the quality of education that students receive, hear what some school superintendents recently reported as part of an ongoing lawsuit about the inadequacy and unfairness of state funding for schools: In the Wilkes-Barre School District, 37 teachers were furloughed in 2016-17 alone. There is not enough money to repair the crumbling façade at one of its high schools. Students must come and go from the building through protective sheds. The Greater Johnstown School District, on the other side of the state, closed a middle school last year because it could not afford to repair it. Since 2010, it has cut 50 teaching positions, causing class sizes to grow. William Penn School District, in the Philadelphia suburbs, eliminated 57 teaching positions. The result: 46 elementary school classrooms have more than 30 students. Many classrooms are without basic educational equipment like projectors and white boards; some textbooks are more than 20 years old. Even so, the school district faces higher property taxes year upon year because the state is unwilling to adequately fund local districts. Rural schools are feeling the pain of the broken state funding system as well. Shenandoah Valley in Schuylkill County furloughed teachers, cut art and physical education for elementary students, and eliminated after-school tutoring. According to Superintendent Brian K. Waite, “we have long since cut any fat from our district budget. For many years now, we have been cutting through bone.” There have been cuts in staff, courses and student support programs in nearby Panther Valley as well. At the intermediate school, there is just one reading specialist serving 450 students. Greater Johnstown Superintendent Amy Arcurio summed it up best for many schools across Pennsylvania: “We know a number of programs that are proven to work for our children, from intensive interventions and trauma informed therapy, to smaller class sizes and adequate counselors. But we don’t provide them, for one reason only: a lack of funding.” Anyone who questions whether greater investment from the state is needed for our students should speak with the teachers, parents, administrators, and student in Wilkes-Barre, Johnstown, Shenandoah or the hundreds of other school districts not getting enough from the state. If they do their homework, they will have little doubt that the level of resources put into a child’s education makes a huge difference. When teachers must teach more 30 students at a time, they cannot provide the personalized instruction that is needed. When students have outdated books and do not have a full range of courses or access to counselors and tutors when they need extra help, they will not reach their potential. There was a time when Pennsylvania shared the cost of educating children equally with local school districts. But now, the state pays for only 37 percent of educational costs, the fourth-lowest rate in the country. It is no wonder that so many schools are struggling to give students what they need. Certainly, real progress has been made since 2015 with more significant state funding increases and pension reform, but after years of underfunding, much more must be done. That is why Pennsylvania Schools Work, a non-partisan coalition representing educators, parents and other community members from urban, suburban and rural communities, is convening regional education summits on Nov. 17, including one in Kingston, to continue the work of achieving full and fair funding for schools. The group’s non-negotiable positions: • Increasing state investment in K-12 public education, including basic, special, and career and technical education. • No redistribution of current state education dollars that could harm many schools and communities. • Equitable distribution of all new state funding through the state’s fair funding formula. • No new state tax policy that would eliminate existing local school district funding and strip away local control of public schools. Instead, allow local districts to ease the property tax burden by increasing the proportion of their district budgets paid for by the state. If Pennsylvania wants to lift up all its students and invest in our future as a state, it must make significant and steady increases in state education funding and distribute those increases fairly, based on where it is most needed. The hard work to achieve that must continue. JOHN NEURHOR is communications director for the Pennsylvania BUDGET and Policy Center.