‘THIS IS THE MOMENT’
In wake of court decision, legislators, officials push for swift action on fair school funding
Legislators and school officials who have fought for fair school for a decade are wasting no time in the wake of a court decision declaring Pennsylvania’s school funding system to be unconstitutional.
Friday, they kicked off a full court press with a press conference calling for immediate action.
“We have known we must fix this system and we haven’t,” said state Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-146th Dist., who organized the rally. “This is the moment, this is the time to act.”
The 786-page decision handed down Feb. 7 was the result 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.
The case took ten years to wind its way through court, culminating in four months of testimony and now the decision by Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer. In the ruling, 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.
Those gaps were wider for historically disadvantaged groups, including Black and Hispanic students, English-language learners, poorer students and others, Cohn Jubelirer wrote. The judge said educators testified that they lacked the very things the state has identified as essential to student achievement, such as safe buildings.
This is largely because Pennsylvania’s education funding system leans so heavily on local property taxes, which results in wealthier districts having more resources available for its students than poorer ones. Pennsylvania ranks near the top of states with school funding gaps between rich and poor districts and near the bottom of state share of school funding.
For an example of how the system impacts property taxes look no further than Norristown Area School District, said Superintendent Christopher Dormer, who is also the president of the Pennsylvania League of Urban Schools, representing 30 districts and more than 300,000 students.
“Over the last decade, Norristown has raised taxes by 30 percent and that’s an embarrassment,” he said.
State Rep. Napoleon Nelson, D154th Dist. said he became acutely aware of how school funding and property taxes are connected six months into his stint as Cheltenham tax collector. He was contacted by an 86-year-old widower
who had lived in his home for 50 years, raised his family there, but was now facing a $20,000 a year tax bill.
Ciresi said the fair funding bill he introduced last year, and intends to re-introduce this year, could cut the average Pottstown property tax bill by $3,000 to $5,000 as well as provide the additional $10 million the district is still underfunded.
Several things threaten to delay action. The ruling does not provide an immediate solution. And, the state Legislature led by the Republican-majority Senate, can appeal and keep the decision in court proceedings for years.
But the time has come to move past that, argued Pottstown School Board President Katina Bearden.
“What we need now is for all legislators to reach across the aisle and act on the ruling. The current formula is not working. The poorest districts get onethird less per-student than the wealthier districts,” she said.
“The data is real and the children need you,” Bearden told the legislators. “It’s time to put children first, not politics.”
State Sen. Tracy Pennycuick, R-24th Dist., was the only Republican to attend the event and said “every child, no matter the color of their skin, or income, deserves a quality education. Education changes lives. I’m looking forward to working across the aisle.”
Looking out at the Pottstown High School AP Government class sitting in the seats of the auditorium Friday, Pennycuick said “the cure for cancer may be sitting in this auditorium today. The population of Pennsylvania is aging. Our students are not coming back to Pennsylvania for opportunity and I believe this is how we change that.”
“Fair funding is not an issue that just affects Pottstown High School,” said Mark Ellison III. Ellison is the president of the Class of 2023, president of the Pottstown chapter of the National Honor Society and a student representative to the school board.
“We are the fifth most under-funded school district in Pennsylvania, but we stand for all students, no matter their race, income or religion,” Ellison said. “No matter our color, our race or our religion, we’re worth it. Every dollar, we’re worth it and we should all be treating each other the same.”
Beth Yoder thinks they are worth it too.
Yoder is a 29-year veteran of public schools. An art teacher, she is also the president of the Federation of Pottstown Teachers and said she got involved in the fair funding fight 21 years ago when budget cuts threated the arts in Pottstown. “The arts are essential to education every single child, to educating the whole child,” said Yoder.
Fair funding would allow Pottstown to “add back classes that were cut, as well as additional classes other districts already have,” she said.
Dormer said the additional funding boos provided in the most recent state budget through a program called “level up” is already making a difference in Norristown. “Our district never had a reading specialist until this year. And our mid-year reading score growth is already off the charts. That growth has been explosive.”
“When we have more, we can do more,” said Pottstown Schools Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez.
After the ruling, which she called “historic and long-overdue,” Yoder said she is “cautiously optimistic” that changes can finally be made to make Pennsylvania’s school funding system equitable.
“We have to make the most of this opportunity in a moment of not only constitutional clarity, but moral clarity.”
But what that change looks like remains a giant question mark.
With the court decision offering no method for achieving that goal, the solution must be generated by new Gov. Josh Shapiro, who campaigned on the issue, and the General Assembly, which now has a Democratic House of Representatives majority for the first time in a decade.
“If you thought what was going on in the legislature in the last two months was exciting wait until you see what comes next,” said Nelson. “It’s going to be a crazy two years.”
“Our system is fundamentally flawed,” said newly elected state Rep. Paul Friel, D-26th Dist., who also ran on the school funding issue. “The entire system has to be fundamentally changed, otherwise we’re just kicking the can down the road and we’ll be here in 10 years with a different set of people having this same conversation. This is an opportunity and now is the time to pick up the pace.”
The problem is complicated with many moving parts, warned state Rep. Mark Scholssberg, D-132nd Dist. Scholossberg, who represents the underfunded Allentown School District and the wealthier neighboring Parkland School District, is the author of the “levelup funding” legislation.
It was the level-up program, which funneled additional money to the state’s 100 most-underfunded schools, that was responsible for the large jumps in state aid received this year by districts like Pottstown, Norristown and Reading. “But I only ever viewed level-up as a bridge,” said Schlossberg. “Now we have to truly fix the system because we are at a point where we are legally compelled to do so.”
But Pennsylvania cannot simply add $4 billion to the education budget — the amount estimated to fully fund all 500 school districts without decreasing funding for districts that are losing population — “because we don’t have $4 billion. The money isn’t there and the politics isn’t there to raise $4 billion all at once,” Schlossberg explained.
More likely, he said, is that the state will add a half billion dollars each year until funding gets more equitable.
“This is the number one priority, we have to take this on right now,” Ciresi said. “The businesses need students to graduate out of this system ready to work. When we make sure students what they need, we have a better Pennsylvania.”
“We’ve already lost an entire generation from the time this lawsuit was filed until this ruling,” said Dormer. “The work begins now.”
“Now is the time to hold us accountable,” said Friel.
“The time has come to stop bickering and kicking the can down the road,” said state Rep. Dan Williams, D-74th Dist. “This is our moment.”