School superintendents, students and a state lawmaker all had the same message: Pennsylvania needs to up its game when it comes to funding K-12 public education.
Speaking at a June 1 press conference at the Centennial School District’s William Tennent High School in Warminster, Bucks County superintendents Dana Bedden (Centennial), Charles Lentz (New Hope-Solebury) and Samuel Lee (Bensalem) joined others in saying the state’s current levels of funding just aren’t cutting it.
The event, organized by the education, early learning and child safety advocacy group Children First, comes after an order from state Commonwealth Court in February declaring Pennsylvania’s current system for funding public education unconstitutional. That order followed a years-long lawsuit filed in 2014 by six school districts, four parents and two statewide organizations against state education officials and others.
The ruling mentions that the current system that relies heavily on local property taxes to fund schools ends up hurting poorer school districts.
“The current system is inadequate and too heavily dependent on the zip code students reside in,” Bedden said. “We’re not here to place blame or point fingers, but we need to be making sure every student receives the funds necessary to enable them to reach their full potential. That should not be dependent on the value of property in the school district where they reside.”
While New Hope-Solebury is generally considered a well-to-do district, it struggles with inequities as well, Lentz said, while also noting the general problem that was the subject of the June 1 event.
“Some students do not receive equal opportunities based on where they live, which absolutely should not be the case,” he said. “In New Hope, 83 percent of our budget is locally funded.”
In addition to not funding K-12 education at an adequate level, the state has placed an additional burden on local taxpayers with so many unfunded mandates and its current seven-year moratorium on Plan Con, the state’s system for helping out local districts with funding for renovations and new construction, Lentz pointed out.
Lee added that one of the many challenges in Bensalem is the district-funded tuition cost for a brick-and-mortar charter school within the district that currently stands at $17 million annually. While stressing that he supports school choice and that the charter school does a good job educating children, Lee said the current system for funding charters and cyber charters places too great a burden on public school districts like Bensalem.
“Bucks County school districts are incredible stewards of taxpayer investments in children,” he said. “But our community members are made to bear a significant burden to maintain these programs. The commonwealth’s commitment is not what it should be to our children.”
Bucks County NAACP President Karen Downer said Pennsylvania ranks near the bottom of states in the country in its level of financial commitment to K-12 education, and added that per-pupil spending among Bucks County school districts ranges from $14,613 in Bristol Borough to more than $34,000 in New Hope-Solebury.
William Tennent seniors Emma Torok and Jamar Mitchell also weighed in on the issue.
“Your zip code should not limit your opportunity,” said Torok, who wants to be a teacher. “All students are worth the investment. We must level the playing field now.”
Children First K-12 Education Policy Director Priyanka Reyes-Kaura said the organization is calling for the state to increase funding by $700 million for basic education, $300 million for Level Up funding (for the state’s 100 poorest school districts) and $236 million for special education for the next school year that starts July 1. Gov. Josh Shapiro’s current budget proposal has $567.4 million more for basic education, $103.8 million more for special education and no increase in Level Up.
“The governor’s proposal is a starting point but we need to go much further,” state Rep. Brian Munroe said. “We need more funding and I will be an advocate for more funding.”
Also joining in that call at the June 1 event was Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy of Congregation Kol Emet/POWER Bucks.