This back to school event in Philly is touching. It’s also what’s wrong with how we pay for schools | Wednesday Morning Coffee

July 8, 2020 7:14 am

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Good Wednesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

First off, let’s agree that the Aug. 22 event sponsored by the Philadelphia community group The Block Gives Back is exactly the kind of local involvement and advocacy that we want to see in Pennsylvania’s cities and towns: Dedicated volunteers coming together to truly make sure that no child is left behind when school resumes this fall — whatever that looks like.

Now let’s also take a moment to consider the radical notion that the fact that such a group even needs to exist in the first place is not only proof positive of the yawning wealth and racial gaps laid bare by the COVD-19 pandemic, it’s also confirmation of the deeply broken and inequitable way that Pennsylvania still insists on using to pay for K-12 public education.

Because if it wasn’t, then a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Pennsylvania’s school funding system wouldn’t be pending before Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, and it wouldn’t require this enthusiastic group of advocates to do something like this:

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That raffle is sweet. It’s touching. It’s a lovely reminder of the importance of our classroom teachers. And it’s heartbreaking.

I’ve frequently run into teachers I know in Michael’s, the craft supply store, or JoAnn Fabrics, as they dug into their own pockets to come up with last-minute supplies for their students.

These aren’t just anecdotes. They’ve also been documented, as was the case with this story by Capital-Star Pittsburgh Correspondent Kim Lyons about one western Pennsylvania district that actually ran out of paper.

Then there’s this story, last week, from former Capital-Star summer intern Jordan Wolman, describing the ‘death by a thousand cuts,’ suffered by one Lebanon County school district as it struggles to make ends meet.

It’s true that Pennsylvania spent an impressive $17,623-per student in 2017-18, according to an analysis by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. It’s also true that more than half of that total, 57.6 percent, is still funded at the local level, where the ability to shoulder that burden varies madly from district to district.

Which brings us back to that Commonwealth Court lawsuit, filed in 2014 by the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center alleging that the state’s system leads to “gross disparities in allocations that penalize students in low-wealth districts,” just like Philadelphia.

In a 2018 brief, relying on an analysis by the Keystone Research Center, the plaintiffs argued that “state funding available for classroom expenses in Pennsylvania has declined in the years since 2013, falling by $155.3 million,” and that any increase in classroom expenditures was offset by “rising costs, such as pension reimbursements and inflation.”

That 2018 brief also found that the “funding gap between typical low- and high-wealth districts in Pennsylvania ‒ the largest such gap in the nation ‒ had grown since the case was filed.”

There’s certainly room for improvement in public education, from reforming a charter school formula that hasn’t been tinkered with for 20 years, to coming up with an equitable property tax fix that goes beyond grumbling seniors who don’t think they need to pay for schools any more.

Policymakers need live up to their obligations and come up with a system that goes beyond a “fair funding formula,” that, while it’s a start, still leaves much to be desired.

So let’s give thanks for groups such as The Block Gives Back, and support their incredibly noble efforts to make sure kids and teachers have what they need for the classroom. And then let’s keep working toward the day where we don’t need them anymore.

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Watch This Spot Dept.
The progressive activist group American Bridge has launched a new volley of ads in its $25 million campaign to woo persuadable Trump voters in the battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

The new spots, which will air on TV, radio and digitally, take the White House to task for its management of the COVID-19 pandemic. American Bridge has reserved air time in the Erie, Harrisburg/Lancaster, Johnstown/Altoona, Pittsburgh, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton markets, where President Donald Trump performed well in 2016.

“When the coronavirus struck, Donald Trump froze like a deer in the headlights. With the virus resurging, he’s too afraid to act,” American Bridge 21st Century President Bradley Beychok said in a statement. “We’re ramping up our efforts in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to reach out to those Trump abandoned in his disastrous pandemic response — seniors, working families, and rural communities. Our strategy is already paying dividends so we’re keeping our foot on the gas in order to ensure Joe Biden becomes the next president of the United States.”

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Our Stuff.
The General Assembly has sent Gov. Tom Wolf a bill offering additional protections against sexual assault for people who are in the custody of law enforcement or other agencies. But it came at a cost, Stephen Caruso reports.

With a wave of evictions looming, nearly four-dozen House Democrats have sent a letter to Gov. Tom Wolfasking him to extend an eviction/foreclosure moratorium, now set to expire on Friday, until year’s end. Caruso also reports.

Reminding us that the bar for bipartisanship in Washington is excruciatingly low, U.S. Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa.have called on Pennsylvanians to observe a statewide mask requirement when they’re out and about. That call came as one-day COVID-19 infections reached a nearly two-month high. Your humble newsletter author has the details.

Health officials in Allegheny County are mulling new dining restrictions as COVID-19 cases increasePittsburgh Correspondent Kim Lyons reports.

On our Commentary Page, opinion regular Mark O’Keefe has a story of everyday heroism for our polarized age. And opinion regular Aryanna Hunter, a veteran and sexual assault survivor, calls for justice for other military survivors.

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a forum on public education in Pittsburgh on Saturday, 12/14/19 (Capital-Star photo by Kim Lyons)

Joe Biden
 is Pennsylvania-bound on Thursday, the Inquirer reports. Vice President Mike Pence is also set to campaign in the state that day.
Black people in Allegheny County are twice as likely as white residents to contract coronavirusPittsburgh City Paper reports.
Officials in Harrisburg have inked a composting deal with suburban Swatara Township. Yard waste from the city will be headed there for the next two years, The ‘Burg reports.
Masks will be mandatory in schools this fall. The Morning Call has a Q&A on what that’s going to mean.

Here’s your #Philadelphia Instagram of the Day:

COVID-19 cases are continuing to rise among younger PhiladelphiansWHYY-FM reports.
Penn State men’s basketball coach has apologized for making a racially insensitive remark to a Black playerWPSU-FM reports.
U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1st District, outpaced Democrat Christina Finello in fundraising during the second quarter of the year, PoliticsPA reportsThe Bucks County lawmaker raised $455,000 between April and the end of June.
Elections experts are warning of ‘disaster’ in November over a ‘litany of unresolved issues,’ reports. 
Five Republican senators have announced they plan to skip the GOP convention in Florida next month, NYMag’s Intelligencer reports.

What Goes On.
The House comes in at 11 a.m. The House Appropriations Committee meets at the call of the chair.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
A veritable bushel basket worth of birthday greetings today, so let’s get started: Congratulations go out this morning to Dan Doubet, of PA Stands Up; PennLive Executive Editor Burke Noel, Sandy Huffman at CBS-21 in Harrisburg, and Richard Reilly, head cool guy at Metropolis Collective in Mechanicsburg, Pa. Enjoy the day, friends.

Heavy Rotation.
Here’s an absolute throwback for your Wednesday morning. From 1986, it’s Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, with the 12-inch version of ‘We Love You.’ Go ahead, try not to dance around your home office.

Wednesday’s Gratuitous Baseball Link.
‘A noisy, powerful minority’ is leading an effort to force Cleveland’s professional baseball team to change its name, reports (paywall).

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.