Funding the 500: Equitably funded schools look different across Pa. They have one thing in common
Opinion: Every day, we are confronted by the gap between what our students deserve and what our broken school funding system provides
(Drazen Zigic/Getty Images)
By Eric Hitchner, Laura Sosik, Afia Lewis, and Luke Strawser
As teachers in underfunded schools across Pennsylvania, we were heartened by the recent Commonwealth Court decision that declared our current education funding system unconstitutional.
Every morning when our students enter our classrooms, we see their unbridled potential: their curiosity, their eagerness to learn, their dreams of becoming future scientists, artists, leaders, and entrepreneurs. Every day, we do our best with the inadequate resources we have, to give them the great educational opportunities they need and deserve.
And every day, we are confronted by the gap between what our students deserve and what our broken school funding system provides.
Judge Renée Cohn Jubilerer found that the Pennsylvania constitution’s education clause “requires that every student receive a meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and civically, which requires that all students have access to a comprehensive, effective, and contemporary system of public education.”
She ruled that the current system discriminates against students in poor districts and denies them access to a thorough and efficient education, and that “it is now the obligation of the Legislature, Executive Branch, and educators, to make the constitutional promise a reality in this Commonwealth.”
What would it look like in our classrooms to make that constitutional promise a reality?
In Philadelphia, where one of our school buildings had exposed asbestos for years and closed twice over the last few months to remediate, it would mean uninterrupted learning in safe, clean, and welcoming facilities equipped for 21st-century learning.
Instead of fear and anxiety that coming to school could literally be killing us, students and staff could feel confident that our buildings and classrooms were designed to support their learning, ensure their safety, and foster connection and creativity. Our schools would be equipped with air conditioning and proper ventilation, be free of hazardous materials, and have up-to-date technology, lab equipment, and sports facilities.
We could expand from the single librarian left in our district and restore libraries in every school, which we haven’t had in decades.
In Scranton, where students and teachers are grappling with mental health challenges like they are across Pennsylvania, we could afford to hire sufficient mental health professionals to meet the American School Counselor Association’s recommended ratio of one counselor for every 250 students.
Currently, in one of our schools, one guidance counselor struggles to meet the needs of 900 economically disadvantaged students. Having additional mental health support would mean that traumatized students who are currently struggling to stay afloat in our classrooms could get the individualized support they need to recover and thrive academically and socially.
In the William Penn School District, where one of us teaches, delivering on our school funding system’s constitutional promise would mean that we could provide our students with equal academic opportunities to those provided in wealthier neighboring communities.
We could update our textbooks and other instructional materials, provide tutoring for any student who needs extra help to reach grade level, and offer more AP, dual enrollment, and career-and-technical education classes to help our students prepare for college and career and compete in a global economy.
In the Mount Union Area School District in rural Pennsylvania, where staffing is our greatest challenge, adequate and equitable funding would allow us to attract and retain great teachers and support staff.
A worsening teacher shortage has intensified competition between districts for a shrinking supply of educators, and underfunded districts are fighting a losing battle, unable to offer competitive salaries and forced to increase class sizes and caseloads as vacancies increase.
With more resources, our districts could increase teacher pay, fill vacant positions, hire more specialized teachers, lower class sizes, and reduce educator workloads. Since we know teacher quality is the most important in-school factor affecting student achievement, being able to recruit and retain more highly-qualified educators would mean we would see more students meeting grade-level standards, graduating, and attending college–with positive ripple effects on our entire community and economy.
Most importantly, fixing our state’s unconstitutional school funding structure would show our students, who can see for themselves the inequities that characterize our current educational system, that they matter and that their futures are important.
We are eagerly watching the Basic Education Commission’s work this summer and fall to holistically redesign our funding system to explicitly address both adequacy and equity. We are also counting on Governor Shapiro and the General Assembly to make a big down payment on an improved system by making major increases to basic education funding, special education funding, Level Up, and facilities in the 2023-24 state budget.
We know that with adequate and equitable funding, our students’ potential and possibilities are limitless. This must be the year to finally give them the resources they deserve.
Eric Hitchner is a high school English and dual-enrollment teacher in the School District of Philadelphia. Laura Sosik is a 2nd grade teacher in the Scranton School District. Afia Lewis is a high school English teacher in the William Penn School District. Luke Strawser is a curriculum director and former middle school history teacher in the Mount Union Area School District. All four are Teach Plus PA Policy Fellows from the 2021-22 and 2022-23 cohorts.
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