As school districts finalized their budgets for the next school year, local school officials and advocates called on the state to do its fair share for education during a press conference last week at the Southeast Delco Kindergarten Center.
On average, states across the country cover 45 percent of school funding costs but Pennsylvania’s contribution to education funding is only 37 percent, one of the lowest in the country. As a result, schools are overly dependent on local school districts which account for 56 percent of school funding.
Calling the state of education funding unfair and inadequate, speakers repeatedly touched on Pennsylvania having the widest funding gap between wealthy and poor districts of any state in the country. The state’s wealthiest school districts spend 33 percent more on each student than its poorest schools.
“The zip code of a student shouldn’t determine the quality of their education. State leaders must invest more for the many students across PA,” said Stephen Butz, superintendent of the Southeast Delco School District.
Fair funding for schools is not only a geographic issue, but also a racial one.
A frustrated Rafi Cave, vice president of the William Penn School District board, kept his comments short and succinct. He first called out political candidates who made promises to make kids and their education a top priority,
“The kids and taxpayers at William Penn haven’t felt that shift in priority,” said Cave. “The communities of Southeast Delco and Upper Darby haven’t seen that beacon of hope. Why is it okay for students and schools less than five miles apart to receive $5,000 less per student? Were they dealt the wrong zip code? Is it because their collected complexions are a little darker? Unfortunately, we have THE civil rights issue of our time on our hands right here in PA. You can’t deny someone a job based on their race, but you can deny them the education to get that job?”
The Education Law Center and POWER (Philadelphia Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild) conducted research to see what funding would look like for poorer districts if all the state’s education funding were distributed using the formula. They discovered the extent to which districts get more or less than their fair share of funding correlates strongly with the percentage that are white.
On average, the whitest districts get thousands of dollars more than their fair share for each student while the least white districts get thousands less for each student than their fair share, according to the formula.
Superintendents from school districts across Delaware County spoke about staff cuts despite increased enrollments, stress related to standardized testing and maintaining student safety. Additional reasons given for the struggles of school budgets were pension contributions (the SE Delco district has seen contributions rise from five percent to 32 percent) and unauthorized cyber charter schools.
The result of fair funding directly affects student resources (from lack of books to technology) and achievement.
“We strive and struggle every year to put the greatest number of professionals in front of the fewest number of kids for the greatest number of every year. The more we lose in that formula, the worse it looks for our kids,” Rose Tree Media Superintendent James Wigo said.
Wigo ended the conference on an ominous note.
“I’m here from one of the more affluent school districts which is a relative term now,” said Wigo. “Under the current system of funding education, we are all shackled together and destined to the same fate. We can mention school districts that have gone over the cliff, but make no mistake; every one of us is walking toward the same cliff. There is a 10-year mantra that many superintendents have been carrying in their back pocket and that is the thought this is somehow the systematic dismantling of public education. Whether that is intentional or not, make no mistake, public education as we all know it is being dismantled one classroom at a time.”