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By Stephen Rodriguez
It has been more than a year since our nation and state have been forced to confront the historic inequality in our nation – in our laws and institutions – and here, in Pennsylvania, in our public school system.
With a $3 billion state revenue surplus, now is the time to redress this wrong. Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal offered a challenge to the General Assembly to take bold action by investing an additional $1.55 billion in education, and to distribute new education funding through the formula.
This plan would have tipped the scales towards equity and offered hope – and educational opportunities – to students the state has long neglected.
The General Assembly has shown little interest in the governor’s plan and so far has offered no alternative to help fill the equity gap. It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve kicked the can down the road.
Our students shouldn’t have to wait any longer. It’s time for a real commitment to level the playing field for all students, regardless of their ZIP code. The General Assembly can do that by “Leveling Up” – a new approach to supplement funding for the most underfunded districts.
There is precedent. This General Assembly took the first step to change our funding system in 2016, working with Wolf to reach an historic agreement on a formula to equitably distribute state education funding across school districts. Five years later, the state dollars flowing through that formula make up only 11 percent of total state basic funding.
Equity matters to our children, our economy and our communities. The most underfunded districts serve a disproportionate share of the commonwealth’s students of color, students living in poverty, students with disabilities, and English learners. But funding inequities affect students throughout the commonwealth, in rural communities where factory jobs disappeared years ago, in aging communities with diminishing resources, and in hollowed-out coal towns.
It would allocate a share of all new, recurring state education funding to the 100 Pennsylvania districts with the fewest resources available to meet student needs. This will accelerate the path to adequacy and equity for the 20 percent of school districts whose students have been shortchanged most deeply due to inadequate funding.
Schlossberg’s bill is a fresh start toward fulfilling the promise of the funding formula. It will help meet the needs of students now left behind – including many of our Black and Brown students – and deliver timely support for the rural, suburban, and urban communities hard hit by the pandemic.
Federal funds won’t solve the problem. The generous one-time infusion through the American Rescue Plan is a vital support for schools to help their students recover after a year of unprecedented disruptions, but isn’t an answer to the structural problem, and as state legislative leaders emphasize, these funds should only be used for non-recurring costs.
The additional funding provided through Level Up will make a huge difference to school districts like mine. The Pottstown School District, where I serve as superintendent of schools, has endured a high turnover rate among professional staff, $24 million in unmet facilities’ needs, and the loss of programs like foreign languages, arts, and co-curricular activities.
What’s worse is that during a time we know mental health will be crucial, we have four guidance counselors to spread between 3,300 students districtwide.
Our curriculum budget, which has remained flat for over a decade, allows for about $58 per student to buy new materials. Do we use grants, and work with community partners, and try to be as efficient as possible so our students don’t suffer?
Of course. But it’s not even close to enough.
This is not where we thought we’d be when the legislature adopted the funding formula in 2016. The pandemic has torn off the band-aid and exposed the vast difference in resources available to students.
It’s time for a new normal: a commitment to all students regardless of their zip code. The time for that commitment is now.
Stephen Rodriguez is superintendent of the Pottstown School District.
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