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By Cory Hulsizer
When I was hired as a Social Studies teacher in the Camp Hill School District a little less than a decade ago, I thought to myself, “Wow, I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Being hired to teach in a suburban, solidly middle-class district, I felt a sense of relief that among all of the challenges I would face as a new educator, teaching in a school that lacks funding wouldn’t be one of them. But I was wrong.
Camp Hill and suburban districts like it are not usually thought about as being inadequately funded, but, according to the state’s own standard, we are. For example, according to the most recent data, Camp Hill was underfunded by about $1.7 million – or $1,374 per pupil. According to this data, my very own 7th graders are being shortchanged by about $122,000/year.
What could that additional $122,000 have done for my students this year? We might have been able to hire a full-time mental health counselor or an additional school psychologist to follow up with students who are ranking themselves a 1 of out 5 on their weekly mental health check-ins.
The additional funding could have allowed us to hire another teacher to reduce our class sizes, offer more co-taught classes, and free up a period in my day to provide remedial interventions to my students who need a little extra practice to reach their full potential.
Or, it could have been used to pay for a series of high-quality professional developments and hire a full-time instructional coach for our district to help keep me and my fellow teachers up to date on what the best practices in the field of education are.
So, contrary to popular belief, underfunding is not specific to rural and urban schools. In fact, over 80% of school districts in Pennsylvania are, like mine, not receiving the funds they need to adequately educate their students.
Nearly every single school district around Camp Hill is underfunded too – some two to three times as much. For example, Mechanicsburg School District is underfunded by about $3,500/pupil and East Pennsboro School District is underfunded by about $4,500/pupil.
If it’s tough for my district to afford the staff and resources we need to help our students succeed, you can only imagine how much more difficult it is for these districts and others like them.
Unsurprisingly, in February’s landmark ruling that declared Pennsylvania’s school funding system to be unconstitutional, the Commonwealth Court agreed with the finding that Pennsylvania’s low-wealth school districts – ones that tend to have the largest funding deficits and are least able to provide these resources – have significantly lower graduation rates and lower standardized test scores than its high-wealth districts.
Altogether, Pennsylvania’s public schools are receiving about $4 billion/year less than they need from the state to thoroughly and efficiently educate all children. This is a sizable amount that reflects decades of underinvestment in our state’s schools, but the good news is that the state is sitting on a historic budget surplus and has the financial capacity to start making things right. All we need is for lawmakers to have the will to act.
We know this $4 billion deficit can’t be filled overnight, but the first step in fixing this issue is for the legislature to make a significant down payment on filling that gap in this year’s budget. Gov. Josh Shapiro’s budget request to increase Basic Education Funding by $567 million this year is a good starting place for discussions to begin.
But lawmakers must push for more. Any increase in the Basic Education Fund will help our students, but the amount Shapiro has requested just barely allows our schools to keep pace with inflation, includes no Level Up funding to fast-track money to Pennsylvania’s 100 poorest school districts, and doesn’t respond to the urgency this moment calls for.
Making a big down payment this year will help provide, as Shapiro regularly mentioned on the campaign trail, “real freedom” to my students.
Real freedom for our students is having capable and diverse teachers, classroom aides, and counselors who know them, know their unique academic, emotional, and mental health needs, and are well versed in how to actually meet those needs.
And that real freedom can’t be provided unless districts have the real resources to hire those staff members, attract them to the profession with competitive salaries, and train them to be the best professionals they can be.
Shapiro suggested that he’ll make a proposal for “historic funding” in next year’s budget, but my students can’t afford to wait another year for the state’s school funding system to be fixed. He and the legislature must act now. The real freedom of our students depends on it.
Cory Hulsizer is a Social Studies Teacher in the Camp Hill School District and is currently serving as a 2022-23 Teach Plus Pennsylvania Policy Fellow. Readers may email him at [email protected].
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