Funding the 500: Pa.’s school funding fix is the challenge of our time | Monday Morning Coffee

A Capital-Star series considers a future Pa. with fully funded public schools

By: - June 19, 2023 7:01 am

(Image via Pittsburgh City Paper.)

Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer’s February order declaring Pennsylvania’s public school funding system unconstitutional did far more than set precedent.

She handed Pennsylvania policymakers perhaps the greatest challenge they will ever face — and one they can ill afford to fail.

“All witnesses agree that every child can learn,” Cohn Jubelirer wrote in her 786-page order. “It is now the obligation of the Legislature, executive branch, and educators to make the constitutional promise a reality in this commonwealth.”

They were the words that educators, parents, and advocates had been waiting decades to hear.

After years of structural inequities that has left tens of thousands of Pennsylvania students struggling for the most basic of resources, while others have every educational advantage at their disposal, Cohn Jubelirer’s order put the commonwealth on the long road to a level playing field.

Those first steps will be taken in the negotiations leading to the approval — most likely in a couple weeks’ time — of Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s $44.4 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

And it’s with that calendar in mind that, this morning, the Capital-Star launches “Funding the 500,” an in-depth look at the trying conditions under which too many of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts are now laboring, and the herculean efforts educators are making to overcome them.

McCaskey High School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on May 30, 2023. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star)

On our news pages, we’ll take you inside school buildings from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and all points in between, and tell you the stories of the parents, teachers, and community volunteers who are working every day to make sure every child in the commonwealth has a fair shot.

This Monday morning, we’ll introduce you to the legal team who mounted that successful legal challenge and take a look at what comes next.

“All of us must be in this for the long haul,” Maura McInerney, the legal director at the Education Law Center, one of the plaintiffs in the historic litigation, told the Capital-Star’s Marley Parish. “This is about the future of our children, the future of our communities, and the future of our state.”

Also this morning, we’ll bring you to the Lancaster public schools, where closets have been pressed into service as classrooms, where mold problems, and an ongoing staffing crisis are making a hard job even harder.

“Education is the utmost important thing to any generation in any country,” Isaias Ortiz, who attended K-12 in the School District of Lancaster, told the Capital-Star. “There’s no growth without the youth.”

On our Commentary Page, we’ll elevate the voices of the advocates and educators who are putting in the hours at the local level to speak for Pennsylvania’s K-12 students.

Over the next four days, they’ll sketch out their visions for a future where Pennsylvania’s public schools are fairly and equitably funded.

“My hope is that now, younger students won’t have to feel inferior or wonder why they don’t have what other schools have,” Nasharie Stewart, a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University, and an intern for the Education Law Centerwrites this Monday morning. “My hope is that now, when these younger students get to high school, they won’t be sitting in a classroom where a pipe from the ceiling could burst and flood the room.”

This week, as state legislators and the Shapiro administration undertake the work of not only passing a state budget, but also of meeting the spirit and the letter of Cohn Jubelirer’s landmark ruling, we hope that the voices of the parents, teachers and students of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts will be echoing in their ears, reminding them of the magnitude of the challenge they face, and of the importance of getting it right.

A brighter future for Pennsylvania’s children is a brighter future for all of us. And it’s a duty we cannot shirk.


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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.