Pennsylvania schools may have gotten a bump in state funding in 2013-14, but education advocates say school districts are still reeling from deep cuts in previous years.
“Some school districts have closed libraries, some school districts have changed their transportation pattern, they’ve cut athletics,” said Mark Miller, vice president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and Centennial School District board member. “The sizes of classes are going up, extracurricular activities are going down.”
Miller joined several dozen advocates who rallied Monday in the state Capitol in hopes of convincing lawmakers to prioritize revamping the state’s education funding system. The speakers, including parents, advocacy organization leaders and a couple lawmakers, urged the General Assembly to develop a fair standard formula for funding Pennsylvania’s schools.
State Rep. James Roebuck, D-188, Philadelphia, argued the state has fallen short of its constitutional obligation to fund public schools equitably and adequately.
“Poor schools are disproportionately taking the hit in these budgets that we pass, and a recent education secretary sat in my office and told me that funding is irrelevant to educational outcomes; it is all about parenting,” said state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-17, Upper Merion, triggering loud boos from the group of advocates.
“Now parenting is important, but that is a very convenient way to absolve yourself of the responsibility for making sure that we have good public schools,” Leach said.
In 2008-09, the state implemented a school funding formula, with funds disbursed based on school-level data such as student enrollment, poverty levels, English language learner populations and local tax contributions.
Pennsylvania abandoned that formula under Gov. Tom Corbett.
The 2013-14 state budget signed by Corbett increased K-12 education funding by $122.5 million, or 2.3 percent.
But the increase didn’t make up for the roughly $1 billion in funding cuts imposed on school districts over the past few years. The advocates didn’t identify sources from which the state could pull additional revenue for schools, insisting it’s the General Assembly’s job to find it.
Schools have taken a variety of measures to absorb the cuts, including wage freezes, layoffs, bigger class sizes, reducing benefits and outsourcing services. Some have also managed to operate more leanly and reinstate employee benefits and refill positions.
Palisades librarians and music, art and Spanish teachers rotate elementary schools. Central Bucks has outsourced more than three dozen bus routes to an outside contractor. In Quakertown, student athletes must now pay-to-play.
“My daughter just went into a middle school that had to eliminate all of its after-school programs. They cut their Home Ec class and their shop class. They are sitting in large classes,” said Susan Spicka, a Shippensburg parent who co-founded Education Matters in Cumberland Valley. “She is really, truly not receiving the educational opportunities that the students before her received.”
Maura Buri, an Upper Merion school board member with three children in school, said her district has scaled back resources and aides devoted to English language learners, with some students now getting that extra help once a week instead of daily. Class sizes have increased, from 22 to 23 students, up to 26 to 28 students, she said.
“People think we have a lot of money and we don’t,” said Buri, also a board member of the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit. “Our special-needs kids are not getting the services that they need. They’re required by law, and it makes us cut other programs just so we can meet the requirements.”
Some cash-strapped schools are struggling to prepare for more rigorous standards and related assessments under the newly approved Pennsylvania Core Standards, based on the national Common Core framework. Some areas, like career technical education, have been flat-funded for several years, Miller said.
“You cannot teach tomorrow’s skills with yesterday’s tools,” Miller said. “We need to have more money, and more sources of income, in order to put America’s children into the workforce when they graduate from school.”
The pro-formula advocates also accused lawmakers of cherry-picking school districts that benefitted from an extra set of funds this year folded into the state budget. After closed-door negotiations, legislative leaders divided a pot of $30 million among 21 districts. Lancaster Superintendent Pedro Rivera didn’t know his district was getting a $2.4-million infusion until he read it in the news, the Lancaster Online reported. Midland Borough in Beaver County received $250,000, while 479 districts were left out. None of those funds went to school districts in Bucks, Montgomery, Cumberland or Fayette counties.
The advocates at Monday’s rally, organized by Education Voters of Pennsylvania, Education Matters in the Cumberland Valley and Keystone State Education Coalition, say they’ve collected nearly 1,300 signatures from 219 districts in 51 counties in support of a fair education funding formula.
Pennsylvania is one of three states without a standard school funding formula, the Education Law Center noted in a February 2013 report. The same report found that Pennsylvania contributes about 36 percent of the share of school district funding, below the national average of 44 percent.
“Forty-six states spend a greater part of their budget on public education than Pennsylvania does,” said Miller, who also co-chairs the Keystone State Education Coalition. “Forty-seven states have a funding formula. Why not Pennsylvania?”
Source: Education News