The Boyertown Area Times

Eyes on Shapiro to set tone for fair funding fix


The February court decision declaring Pennsylvan­ia’s method of funding schools unconstitu­tional was by no means an end to the long fight for fair school funding. It was the beginning, advocates say, a rallying point to get on track toward an equitable system of education funding.

“We have known we must fix this system and we haven’t,” state Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-146th Dist., said at a rally he organized last month among area legislator­s and educators. “This is the moment; this is the time to act.”

The Feb. 7 decision handed down by Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer was the culminatio­n of a decades-long effort and a lawsuit brought by six school districts, including William Penn in Delaware County; the state conference of the NAACP; the Pennsylvan­ia Associatio­n of Rural and Small Schools and several parents.

Cohn Jubelirer wrote that students in areas with low property values and incomes “are deprived of the same opportunit­ies and resources” as those in more affluent areas, resulting in wide achievemen­t gaps that have been catalogued as examples of unfair school funding among the districts of our region.

The court decision also coincided with the first weeks of Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administra­tion, a hopeful sign for districts like Norristown and Pottstown in Shapiro’s native Montgomery County. His pick for secretary of education, Dr. Khalid Mumim, brings an understand­ing of school funding gaps as former superinten­dent in both Reading, considered the poorest district in Pennsylvan­ia, and Lower Merion, one of the wealthiest.

The landmark court decision did not offer a method for achieving equity in school funding, leaving a solution up to Shapiro and the General Assembly, which now has a Democratic House majority for the first time in a decade.

Getting to that solution won’t be easy.

Efforts in the past have focused on the Fair Funding Formula adopted by the Legislatur­e in 2016 but never fully implemente­d.

The formula takes into account factors that create hardships for low-income districts — English as second language students, special education needs and older facilities — and weights the state’s funding by those factors. But the legislatur­e authorized its use for new funding only, which superinten­dents say has robbed districts of millions of dollars.

The problem is complicate­d with many moving parts, warns state Rep. Mark Schlossber­g, D-132nd Dist., speaking at Ciresi’s rally. Schlossber­g, who represents the underfunde­d Allentown School District and the wealthier neighborin­g Parkland School District, is the author of the “level-up funding” legislatio­n, which funneled additional money to the state’s 100 mostunderf­unded schools. “But I only ever viewed level-up as a bridge,” Schlossber­g said. “Now we have to truly fix the system because we are at a point where we are legally compelled to do so.”

Observers note that Pennsylvan­ia cannot simply add $4 billion to the education budget — the amount estimated to fully fund all 500 school districts — “because … the money isn’t there and the politics isn’t there to raise $4 billion all at once,” Schlossber­g explained.

Lawyers for the plaintiff school districts in the lawsuit say that “a down payment” of at least $2 billion would be a good start.

For the long term, a complete overhaul is needed to correct the lopsided funding, as recognized by the court: A long-term plan that addresses inequities including unsafe school buildings, student resources, class sizes, and staffing. Underlying the issue is the reliance on local property taxes, which affects not just schools but entire communitie­s.

Legislativ­e action now would work around lengthy court delays that will follow if the Republican-controlled state Senate appeals the court ruling. “We’ve already lost an entire generation from the time this lawsuit was filed until this ruling,” said Norristown Area School District Superinten­dent Christophe­r Dormer, and more delays would take an even greater toll.

How Shapiro proposes to tackle the issue coincides with the need for hard work from a divided legislatur­e to devise a solution, a goal that we hope is pursued with some urgency.

It’s time to rip off the Bandaids and craft a funding system for schools that, in the words of the court, guarantees an equal education for all students, now and toward a lasting future.

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