A western Pennsylvania school district ran out of paper. That’s everything you need to know about school funding in Pa. | Analysis

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PITTSBURGH — The news started as a morning tweet on Valentine’s Day that easily could have gone unnoticed: Katie Couch, a school counselor at the Sto-Rox school district tweeted that the district had “completely run out of paper for the rest of the year.”  

The Sto-Rox superintendent told the Tribune Review that the “surprising” shortage was due to “a conservative spending budget.”

How it came as a surprise to anyone is a bit puzzling: look at the number of Sto-Rox teachers who posted requests for paper for their individual classrooms on Donors Choose, a Go-Fund-Me site for “public school teachers in need of funding.”

One reads:

“I teach in a low-income Title I school district where 100% of students receive free breakfast and lunch. Despite the daily struggles many of my students face, they come into my class knowing they can set their baggage aside for a while and just be a regular kid in fifth grade.” 

When I saw Couch’s tweet, I felt confident two things would happen: first, that the generous people of southwestern Pennsylvania would step up to help, and second, that the local news media would focus on that generosity and turn this into a “feel-good” story (more on that in a second). 

The worst part of this story is the problem that isn’t getting fixed by people buying reams of paper. Because when it takes a school counselor pleading on Twitter to get a low-income school district enough basic supplies, it’s not a feel- good story.

It’s yet another huge red flag that the way we fund public schools in Pennsylvania — relying heavily on local property taxes— is badly broken and needs to change.

The school funding gap in Pennsylvania is the subject of a lawsuit expected to be tried in Commonwealth Court this summer, which argues that the funding formula discriminates against lower-income districts. It absolutely does, and it’s about time the Keystone State revamped the entire formula.

Sto-Rox for example, serves students in McKees Rocks (where 28 percent of households are below the poverty level) and Stowe (26 percent below the poverty level), and yet 25 percent of its $28 million 2019-2020 budget came from local property taxes. 

I know I’m going to take a lot of heat for this next section because I live in southwestern Pennsylvania and high school football is important to many schools and students.

Kids in low-income districts should have access to all everything that kids in wealthy districts do, and that includes arts, extracurriculars and sports. I also don’t want to presume too much; I don’t live in the Sto-Rox district and what they raise money for is up to them. 

But if the community can raise enough to pay $700,000 for a refurbished football stadium (no local taxes were used, according to the superintendent), why is it not possible to prioritize paper for the district’s fifth-graders before they run out?

Someone asked me on Twitter why the Sto-Rox paper shortage couldn’t be a two-part story: both appalling that they ran out of money, and, “a good story people stepped up in time of need.” 

Because it’s a societal failure that children don’t have enough paper in school to do worksheets and study for tests. Kudos to everyone who stepped up, but this shouldn’t be about making you feel good because you donated a few bucks. 

Like the stories of the teacher whose colleagues donated their sick time so he could continue his cancer treatments, or the kid who sold his Xbox so his mom could buy a used car, looking just at the outcome of Sto Rox paper outage (“is it incredible or what?” the superintendent exclaimed) doesn’t push us to question why these economic crises keep happening to vulnerable people and children.

And if we don’t push back and ask these questions (what’s going to change in next year’s Sto-Rox budget, for instance?), there’s nothing to stop another school district from having to go begging on social media to rely on the kindness of strangers.