Commentary

This budget season, lawmakers have to put underserved students first | Opinion

February 2, 2021 6:30 am

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By Nelly Jimenez, Deborah Godon Klehr, Susan Spicka, Patty Torres, Laura Boyce, and Jennifer R. Clarke

Longstanding, devastating inequities in Pennsylvania’s education funding system guarantee that our state continues to mistreat hundreds of thousands of its historically underserved students, including many students of color, students living in poverty, students with disabilities, English learners, and others. The problem: These students attend schools that lack the basic resources to meet their needs.

In the 2021-2022 budget, the Legislature must finally take steps toward providing additional funding to schools that have the fewest resources available to meet their students’ needs.

It must commit to fully closing the resource and opportunity gaps that threaten the Commonwealth’s future workforce, tax base, and economy. It is unacceptable to continue ignoring the substantial harm that Pennsylvania’s current funding system inflicts on students and communities throughout the commonwealth.

It is no secret that Pennsylvania has one of the most inequitable school funding systems in the nation, and that students of color disproportionately experience the consequences of that neglect.

A 2019 study from Research for Action, “Unequal Access to Educational Opportunity Among Pennsylvania’s High School Students,” found that the size and pervasiveness of race and income disparities in educational access in Pennsylvania are among the most severe in the country.

Few states provide so much opportunity to their White students and yet so little for their Black and Latinx students. The study found these disparities in areas like access to quality educators, college-ready curriculum, and a positive school climate.

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Compounding this injustice, students in profoundly underfunded school districts prior to the pandemic were hit the hardest by the COVID-19 school closures.

Poor ventilation, crowded classrooms, and inadequate space for social distancing have prevented students in many under-resourced districts from returning to in-person learning. As these children do their schooling from home, they see their peers in neighboring well-funded districts safely return to school and experience the academic and social benefits of in-person learning.

The laptop or iPad that has long been standard issue in wealthy districts was a distant dream for students in poor districts prior to the pandemic. Not only did these students have to wait for weeks or months to get their computers and internet access after the switch to remote learning, they also had to master this new technology without in-person support.

These inequities are baked into Pennsylvania’s current school funding system. Without action they will continue to grow worse.

Pennsylvania ranks 44th in the nation for state share of school funding, with the commonwealth providing just 38 percent of K-12 funding; nationally, the norm is close to 50 percent. When the state is cheap, it puts enormous pressure on communities to fund their schools through property taxes.

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Wealthy communities with robust local tax bases can readily raise enough funding to provide student with ample resources, even with relatively low tax rates for home and business owners. Meanwhile, communities that lack a healthy tax base have among the highest property tax rates in the commonwealth and are still unable to raise enough local dollars to fund their schools.

While Pennsylvania’s Basic Education Funding (BEF) formula provides weighted student funding for districts with higher levels of need, only new education spending is distributed using this formula – just 11 percent of the total.

 At the current rate of increases in state educational spending, it will take decades or more for the most underfunded districts to reach adequate funding; the increases are too small and spread across too many districts to close the gap.

Some say the state should just distribute its funds more fairly. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t solve the problem. The shortfalls are too great; the pie is simply too small.

Pennsylvania needs to do something fundamentally different in order that all students, regardless of where they live, receive an education that will allow them to thrive, succeed, and live productive, fulfilling lives after graduation.

Every student deserves robust course choices, small class sizes so that teachers can provide them with the help they need, enough school counselors and nurses to provide mental and physical health services, and a safe, healthy learning environment.

We are calling on Gov. Wolf and the legislature to close the enormous funding gaps that are hurting Pennsylvania’s most underserved children.  It’s time to level up school funding in Pennsylvania.

Nelly Jimenez, is the executive director and CEO of ACLAMO. Deborah Godon Klehr is the executive director of the  Education Law Center-PA. Susan Spicka is the executive director of Education Voters of Pa. Patty Torres is the organizing director for Make the Road Pennsylvania. Laura Boyce is the Pennsylvania executive director for Teach Plus. Jennifer R. Clarke is the executive director of the Public Interest Law Center.

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