Investing in public education excellence is essential for thriving communities, a vibrant economy, and successful students. Every child, regardless of their zip code, deserves access to public schools that provide a full curriculum, up-to-date math and reading textbooks, art and music classes, technical opportunities, and a safe, clean, stable school environment. All children must be given an equal chance to succeed.
Pennsylvania is falling far short of that goal, primarily because of our broken public school funding system. So much so that the Commonwealth Court recently declared that funding system to be unconstitutional in a recent, historic ruling. The governor and the legislature agree that they are now charged with correcting that and ensuring that all students, no matter where they live, have the resources necessary to receive an adequate and equitable public education.
The Court ruled that: “Educators credibly testified to lacking the very resources state officials have identified as essential to student achievement, some of which are as basic as safe and temperate facilities in which children can learn.” The court also wrote in its decision that, “Educators also testified about being forced to choose which few students would benefit from the limited resources they could afford to provide, despite knowing more students needed those same resources.”
As a result, while pockets of excellence demonstrate that Pennsylvania public schools and students can succeed with sufficient resources, our commonwealth as a whole is performing far below its students' potential due to widespread underfunding. This underfunding disproportionately harms our most vulnerable children. Pennsylvania will not become a national and international economic and education leader until it ensures all public schools have the resources to help every student succeed.
Significant funding increases in future years will be necessary for the state to meet its constitutional requirement to provide a thorough and efficient system of public education. Pennsylvania is currently 45th in the country when it comes to the share of revenue from the state to school districts, which means the burden is passed to local taxpayers through property taxes.
For years, mandated costs for school districts like charter school payments, pension costs, and special education have skyrocketed while increases in funding from the state have been modest, on average.
According to the Pennsylvania Association of State Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, in the last decade mandated costs grew by $6.5 billion, while total state funding grew by only $2.8 billion, leaving a funding gap of $3.7 billion. The burden to make up the gap then falls on local taxpayers.
This underfunding results in larger class sizes, outdated curriculum, crumbling school buildings, fewer teachers and support staff, and administrators left scrambling to make ends meet for their students.
The recently convened, bipartisan Basic Education Funding Commission is the perfect vehicle to develop a plan to meet the court’s mandate to create a state public school funding system that is both fair and adequate. This plan should include quantifiable goals for investment for each school district – often referred to as adequacy targets – to ensure all students have access to a public education that prepares them for post-secondary education or gainful employment post-graduation.
Lawmakers should not be distracted by issues like private school vouchers that do not address the Court’s ruling and worsen the constitutional school funding crisis by drawing precious funds away from public schools. It’s time to turn the page and begin working towards a remedy that addresses the 90% of Pennsylvania’s students (1.7 million children) who attend public schools. Taxpayer dollars to private school voucher programs take away money from public education, harm public schools and the students who attend them and do not improve student outcomes. Though the Court dealt exclusively with public school students’ constitutional rights and made no mention of private schools or vouchers in its ruling, some lawmakers and outside organizations will wrongly raise them as a component of complying with that ruling.
When Pennsylvania schools are adequately funded, they work. The future of Pennsylvania public education will be bright if lawmakers see the clear constitutional mandate: we must fund a “thorough and efficient system of public education for all PA students.” Curing the constitutional flaws in the current system must begin right away with updated adequacy targets for school districts and a commitment to closing the statewide adequacy gap quickly.
Now is the time to upend the broken school funding system in Pennsylvania once and for all.