Pennsylvania’s Schools Deserve Better!!

Published in the Delaware County (PA) Daily Times Thursday, June 3, 2021

By Joseph Batory

Pennsylvania has not provided its fair share of funding for public education for many years.

And Pennsylvania’s day in court is fast approaching. This much anticipated lawsuit is now tentatively scheduled for September 9 in Commonwealth Court.

The Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center are representing several school districts, parents, and organizations behind a lawsuit contending that Pennsylvania has failed to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of education, as guaranteed by its own State Constitution. 

Data prepared for the plaintiffs by Matthew Gardner Kelly, an assistant professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, offers the grim reality of what has been happening to education funding for Pennsylvania’s schools over many years.

Over more than two decades Pennsylvania’s public-school children have been shortchanged by $4.6 billion by the State — and those in the poorest school districts have fallen the furthest behind.

As the State of Pennsylvania has not paid its fair share of education funding, school districts have relied more heavily on local (property) taxes.  School districts with stronger local tax bases have been able to raise more revenue than poorer districts from real estate taxes, even though many of those poorer districts are often taxing their residents at higher rates.  As a result, lower-wealth school districts have had less money to spend. On average, the poorest 20% of Pennsylvania school districts spend $7,866 less per student than the wealthiest 20%, the report said. 

“You just have concentrated wealth versus concentrated poverty,” said Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, staff attorney for the Public Interest Law Center

Indeed, this State underfunding has created apartheid in Pennsylvania.

Many of these poorer school districts throughput Pennsylvania have cut educational programs and staffing, even though they have raised real estate taxes in a futile attempt to try to make up for the massive State shortfalls of funding. NB—Using real estate taxes as the majority support for public education makes no sense.

Below are some “bottom lines” from the Penn State study:

  • Pennsylvania has the widest funding gap between wealthy and poor school districts of any State in the country, with the wealthiest school districts spending 33% more on each student than the poorest districts. Educational quality for young people now more than ever depends on where each student lives.
  • 428 school districts — educating 86% of Pennsylvania’s public-school students — lacked adequate funding in 2018-19.  80% of Pennsylvania’s school districts, serving 1.4 million students are significantly underfunded by the State. In Philadelphia, the shortfall is $5,600 underfunded by the State per student. Nearby suburban school districts like Upper Darby ($6,000 underfunded by the State per student) and SE Delco ($5,809 underfunded per student) are other prime examples. 
  • This study also concluded that some districts including Radnor, Lower Merion, Unionville Chadds Ford, Abington, Hatboro-Horsham, and even Pittsburgh are sufficiently funded and really do not need annual subsidy increases from the State at present.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has recently unveiled a budget proposal to begin correcting this travesty with huge amounts of new dollars directed for education funding. But Wolf’s proposal, which would increase the State Income Tax from 3.07 % to 4.49% to raise the funds, is not likely to have any success in the Republican-dominated legislature which has been at the heart of this multi-year underfunding. 

Ironically, Pennsylvania’s current State income Tax rate is the lowest among all states with a flat tax. And a State Income Tax increase is probably the fairest and most progressive way to begin to solve the problem.  In fact, the Pennsylvania’s State income Tax has not been adjusted since 2003.

Regardless of what happens to Wolf’s proposed budget, this school funding lawsuit against broken Pennsylvania government filed in 2014, cast aside by the court, and then reopened by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2017, is finally about to be adjudicated. 

Beyond politics, this a moral issue: Pennsylvania government has not been funding public education “equitably and adequately” for many years.  There is no “quick fix,” but something needs to be done!  The Pennsylvania legislature must face up to the responsible reality of beginning to utilize a dedicated multi-year correction funding plan so that all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, ability, family income or the community where they live, have access to quality public schools.

Joseph Batory is a former superintendent of schools in Upper Darby (1984-99).  He is the author three books and more than 150 published articles on politics, education, and history.

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