Jennifer Todd, a family and consumer science teacher in the Bald Eagle Area School District speaks at a Centre County school funding rally with state lawmakers on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023 (Screen Capture).
Jennifer Todd, a family and consumer science teacher in the Bald Eagle Area School District, told state lawmakers at a hearing on public education in Centre County on Wednesday that teaching in a rural school district means “always having to do more with less.”
Todd and her colleagues at other rural school districts across Pennsylvania told lawmakers how the previous school funding system, which was deemed unconstitutional earlier this year by the Commonwealth Court, harmed rural and less wealthy districts — and their students.
“Our students are facing unprecedented challenges. Our public schools are facing unprecedented challenges and educator shortage attacks on our profession, from bad political actors and a funding system that was just ruled unconstitutional by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court,” Todd said. “The last one hurts districts like mine the most.”
Todd accused the now-unconstitutional funding system of “leaving students like mine behind their peers” at other, wealthier school districts and urged state lawmakers to work together to find an equitable solution.
“The reality is I need help. We all need help. We need more funding, more teachers, more mental health professionals, more support professionals, and more resources because our students deserve the same opportunities to shine and grow and learn as everyone else,” Todd said.
Amanda Hetrick, a Forest Area School District teacher, drove 2.5 hours to Bald Eagle School District in Centre County to testify at Wednesday’s hearing.
Hetrick, who has worked in a rural district for 35 years, said that she was proud to hear lawmakers discussing how to make “substantial change” and better care for students at schools across the Commonwealth.
“I will tell you, today is one of the most hopeful days of my life,” Hetrick said.
James Orichosky, principal of Wingate Elementary School in the Bald Eagle Area School District, called education a “great equalizer” due to its beneficial effects on students and rural communities.
“We need to keep providing a quality education for our rural communities because it benefits the communities,” Orichosky said. “It benefits the families, and then we will see people start moving into these communities.”
There are 500 school districts across Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, serving very different student populations across urban, rural, and suburban settings, but the problems the districts face — such as funding and resources — are the same, Orichosky explained.
“We talked too much about how they’re different but they’re not,” Orichosky said. “They are the same and we need to start working together on that.”
Orichosky emphasized the importance of partnerships between public school districts and post-secondary education institutions, such as vocational schools and universities.
“We need to make sure that we are giving these tools to these students to grow no matter what path they take,” Orichosky said.
He also called for universal Pre-K education and universal breakfast and lunch programs at public schools across the Commonwealth.
“It’s something we can make happen now,” Orichosky said.
Dr. Karen Eppley, faculty affiliate at the Center on Rural Education and Communities at Penn State University, said that rural school districts are feeling financial strain due to rising costs and an increase in cyber charter school enrollment.
The Bald Eagle Area School District spent more than $1.5 million on cyber charter school tuition in the 2021-22 school year, Eppley said.
“Not only do cyber charter tuition payments affect the ability of school districts to provide needed instructional services and facility maintenance, but they threaten the very viability of the school district,” Eppley said, adding that Pennsylvania has one of the widest gaps between low wealthy and low wealth school districts of any state in the country.
“The disparity is so wide that the most well-off districts spend over $100,000 more per classroom than the poorest districts,” Eppley said. “We need state legislators to make a commitment to increase funding for public schools.”
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