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Pa. school districts and lawmakers praise court’s school funding decision, but for different reasons

Both are reacting to a state court decision that declared the current public school funding formula unconstitutional.

  • Gabriela Martínez/WITF
  • Sam Dunklau
Mastriano wants to reduce state per-student public school funding, while Shapiro as attorney general has supported a lawsuit that asks for more.

 Tim Tai / Philadelphia Inquirer

Mastriano wants to reduce state per-student public school funding, while Shapiro as attorney general has supported a lawsuit that asks for more.

Reactions from school districts, education advocates, and lawmakers to a first-of-its-kind state court decision that declared Pennsylvania’s school funding model unconstitutional ranged from praise to disagreement about how to move forward. 

For decades, Pennsylvania public schools have mostly relied on local taxpayers for the funding they need to operate each year. In 2014, six underfunded districts – including  the School District of Lancaster and Shenandoah Valley School District – sued the state over that funding scheme, arguing it unconstitutionally deprived their students of a quality education and allowed the state to avoid paying its fair share to support schools.

The view from the schools

Wayne Gerhis, chief financial officer at Reading School District, says changes in the basic education funding formula during the Wolf administration allowed for more state funding to poor school districts. Still, communities with low tax bases cannot contribute much to their school districts. Roughly 76% of Reading School District’s budget is funded by state resources and roughly 5.8% comes from local taxes, Gehris said. He also noted that in 2021, Reading School District still ranked 494th out of 500 in total state and local revenue per pupil.

“When you look at the totals of what we got –  $13,587 per pupil – from a state and local perspective. The average was $18,600, and the highest district was $34,200,” Gerhis explained. “So, while the state funding mechanism through the vested education funding increased state resources, there still continued to be significant disparities amongst districts.”

Schools across the state have urged lawmakers for years to supply more state funding to not only teach kids, but to hire and keep more teachers and even fix aging buildings.

“If we had adequate funding, perhaps we could increase the compensation for all of our staff members to be able to recruit and retain teachers,” Gehris said.  “Districts tend to lose teachers at a faster rate than suburban districts, so being able to retain them so that there’s continuity in education for students, and familiar faces for students.”

School funding disparities are an issue for both urban and rural schools.

According to the 786-page ruling issued by the Commonwealth Court on Monday, about 74% of students in Shenandoah Valley – a  small, rural district of about 1,100 students in Schuylkill County – come from low-income families. Shenandoah Valley’s special needs population has an “average-than-higher need,” many of whom have disabilities that require more resources, according to the ruling. Shenandoah Valley’s English Language Learner (ELL) population has doubled since 2008. 

Edward Albert, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, has traveled throughout the state to visit schools and speak to superintendents from rural districts. He said funding deficiencies at some of the state’s most remote school districts are glaring.

 “You go to one school district, and they’re unable to teach any foreign language class, and if they do, they teach a foreign language class via video, because they don’t have personnel there,” Albert said. “You go to another district and the computers and the textbooks and things like that haven’t been up to date.”  

Albert still believes the ruling will help address some of these issues, but that it’s up to legislators and the new administration to come up with a plan.

“It’s a huge win. It’s a good day in Pennsylvania, for those who weren’t always getting the better end of the stick,” Albert said

Damaris Rau, former School District of Lancaster, echoed a similar sentiment.

“My hope is that the legislators, the governor’s office, will come together with educators and start planning how this might work. So right now, the state – legislators that is – said that it would take 30 years for them to pass all funds through the fair funding formula, which is ridiculous. How many generations of kids will not have opportunities?”

Lawmakers split on response

Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer wrote in her decision that the state is failing to give students in underfunded districts what they need to get a quality education – and that only the legislature can fix it. 

That puts policymakers under new and unique legal pressure to make sure money for students, teachers, and aging building repairs is distributed fairly among districts.  

Most lawmakers agree there’s a problem but are split along party lines about how to tackle it.

House Democrats say they want to “equitably fund schools,” which in the past has meant funneling more state money into underfunded districts via what’s known as the Level Up formula. Last year, all 500 districts got a share of $750 million in new funding.

The caucus took control of the House for the first time in more than a decade, after voters in three Allegheny County special elections handily elected Democrats.

“As the new majority, our caucus looks forward to returning to Harrisburg to welcome three new members and to enact fair operating rules so that the House can begin to…equitably fund schools based on what’s best for students,” House Dems said in a statement.

Senate Republicans, who control that chamber, say the decision urges them to support “education empowerment and access,” both buzzwords among supporters of charter school and school choice vouchers. They added the state’s $1.5 billion total school funding increase last year proves their willingness to bump up funding for public and state-supported private schools.

“The Senate Republican Caucus is committed to prioritizing education empowerment and access for students across Pennsylvania,” Senate Majority Leader spokesperson Kate Flessner said. “Our system has always sought to support state and local taxpayers, whom we will continue to respect moving forward as we address all needs of the Commonwealth.”

House Republicans such as Minority Appropriations Chair Seth Grove (R-York County) argue the decision green-lights more opportunities to build charter schools and fund school choice vouchers. 

“Huge school choice victory,” he wrote on Twitter Tuesday. 

Governor Josh Shapiro, meanwhile, said his office is “determining next steps” in school funding – without elaborating. 

“My Administration is in the process of thoroughly reviewing the Commonwealth Court’s opinion and we are determining next steps.” 

He isn’t committing to a course of action yet, but is expected to lay out his public education spending priorities in his first budget address next month. On the campaign trail, Shapiro said he wants to increase the state’s public education spending and is against putting state money toward voucher programs.


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