A Pennsylvania court case that’s been dragging along for the past seven years is finally being heard in the Commonwealth court — and the decision will either ameliorate or exacerbate educational inequities for generations to come.
While evidence is clear that many Pennsylvania schools need more funding to operate effectively, the plaintiffs in the case face a difficult path to victory. After all, Pennsylvania has a long history of refusing to fund public schools adequately.
Educators, families and youth, particularly those in Philadelphia, have been pressuring local and state officials to fund schools adequately for more than a century.
More often than not, their demands have been dismissed out of hand. When courts have been asked to rule on inadequate state funding, they have often ruled that school funding rests with local communities, and thus the state has fulfilled its constitutional obligations. Little has changed.
Even though the case before us might be hard to win, the most recent midterm elections show that voters care deeply about their public schools.
Pennsylvania’s inadequate school funding is one of the few issues that cuts across class, race and space.
Pennsylvania’s inadequate school funding is one of the few issues that cuts across class, race and space. It’s an area where we could build what a current research study calls “commonsense solidarity” by focusing on bread-and-butter issues such as school funding. This case is an opportunity for elected officials and local educators in the state’s largest cities and smallest towns to educate and engage residents about the long-standing educational inequities that harm all Pennsylvania children.
I know this firsthand. I was raised in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, a Republican, majority-white stronghold in the south-central part of the state. I am a product of its public school system in which administrators and educators work every day to provide students with basic educational essentials despite the state’s refusal to fund its schools adequately.
Recent data shows that Chambersburg’s public school system was $42,549,800 short of Pennsylvania’s benchmark funding for basic adequacy. Current state funding shortchanges the average Chambersburg student $4,379 in school funding annually.
The shortage of funds has a profound impact on the educational services and opportunities the school system can provide, especially for its most vulnerable youth.
Chambersburg school officials simply do not have the funding they need to provide robust support for the town’s ever-increasing numbers of immigrant and refugee students. They do not have the necessary funding to offer professional development to boost culturally relevant and responsive teaching. They do not have funding to hire adequate school counselors, to support diverse course electives or to create smaller class sizes so that teachers can attend to students’ individual needs.
Unsurprisingly, the funding shortage has had adverse effects on the educational outcomes in the area, making Chambersburg one of nearly two hundred schools on the state’s watchlist for underperformance.
Three hours east, in Philadelphia, a place I called home for more than a decade and where I continue to conduct research on school improvement and educational history, school officials serve a majority-Black student population in one of the poorest large cities in the nation.
Data indicates that Philadelphia was $1,136,673,243 short of Pennsylvania’s benchmark for basic adequacy. Current state school funding shortchanges the average Philadelphia student $5,583 annually. Children in Philadelphia often attend school in substandard facilities with overcrowded classrooms.
Research shows that, in violation of state law, 86 percent of Pennsylvania students attend schools that do not receive adequate resources for education. According to the latest state benchmarks, 277 Pennsylvania school districts need more than $2,000 more per student to provide adequate school funding to support classroom instruction and prepare them for their futures. The state would have to spend an additional $4.6 million to properly educate Pennsylvania youth.
The plaintiffs in the court case selected towns across the Commonwealth to represent the state’s class, geographical, political and racial diversity. We can leverage this moment and case to assemble a broad coalition of individuals across Pennsylvania — in large cities, small towns and rural communities — who are united in the common goal of securing adequate state funding for our children’s public schools.
We should seize the opportunity to promote conversations across Pennsylvania, and ultimately across the United States, about the effects of inequitable and inadequate public school funding in the hopes that together we can devise and implement solutions to finally address it.
Erika Kitzmiller is a faculty member in education at Barnard College and author of “The Roots of Educational Philadelphia’s Germantown High School, 1907 -2014.”