A judge ruled earlier this year that the funding system for K-12 schools in the nation’s fifth most populous state is unconstitutional—but educators are still eagerly awaiting solutions to the funding-related problems they encounter every day at work.
In February, a Pennsylvania judge sided with six school districts, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference in a lawsuit arguing that the state is failing to meet its constitutional obligation to provide equal educational opportunities for all students. The ruling came nine years after the case was first filed.
In Pennsylvania, school districts depend on local property taxes for 43.5 percent of their budgets, higher than the national figure of 36.5 percent, according to the most recent federal data. Meanwhile, the state contributes 38 percent of K-12 education funding—while states nationwide collectively contribute 48 percent of the nation’s school dollars.
The plaintiffs argued that this system, and the state’s historic approach to providing additional aid, leads to a disparity between school districts in wealthier areas that can derive more funds through property taxes and those in poorer areas of the state.
Lawmakers have already taken some steps toward improving equity in education funding. In 2016, the state began directing some K-12 funding through a new Level Up formula that prioritizes high-need districts. Earlier this year, they passed a budget that included $700 million in new funding for K-12 schools.
But one in six districts will see funding increases that fail to match the pace of inflation, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer analysis. And the legislature wrapped up without reworking the structure of the state’s funding formula, or even finalizing the administrative process necessary to ensure schools receive all their current school year dollars in a timely fashion.
With the new school year right around the corner, Pennsylvania educators have expressed frustration over being left in this limbo period. They’re continuing to struggle with tough decisions on how to allocate limited resources. And they expect the state to deliver a response to the judge’s call to action.
“Now is the time,” said Brian Costello, superintendent of Wilkes-Barre Area School District, which was a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “We can’t allow another generation, another 3rd grader, 2nd grader, 10th grader to go without the proper resources. What we have to do is we have to come up with a system that provides equitable funding for all the districts within the commonwealth.”
Policies without a prescription
The judge, Renee Cohn Jubelirer, called for policies that help close disparities and ensure schools have the resources they need to educate all students. But she didn’t propose or order specific remedies.
Lawmakers in Pennsylvania are now tasked with reworking the state’s approach to school funding. They completed this year’s legislative session in July without making much progress, thanks in part to an unrelated debate over expanding a private-school voucher program that delayed the final approval of the state budget. Plus, revamping a school finance system that confounds even the most scholarly experts is a tall order on short notice.
The fight for fair funding in Pennsylvania is not over, according to attorneys involved in the case. Similar judicial rulings in states like New Jersey and North Carolina have prompted decades of legislative wrangling and political advocacy over implementing reforms.
The state of the economy, the partisan makeup of key state offices, and the willingness of policymakers to delve deep into arcane and outdated formulas typically shape the pace of progress.
“This is not the kind of case where you can celebrate, walk away, and wait for the money to come in,” said Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, a senior attorney at the Public Interest Law Center, which represented the districts and organizations in the Pennsylvania funding case. “The first thing we are doing on behalf of our clients is trying to make that happen. At its heart, what we are doing right now is working with the legislature this year and in the future to try to bring about a constitutionally compliant system.”
Experiences from underfunded school administrators
With funding largely dependent on property taxes, districts that the court ruling deemed underfunded typically have high poverty levels and large minority populations. Students who may already have difficult home lives in these districts frequently attend schools that lack resources, facilities, and class offerings that their peers in nearby, wealthier districts may have.
Whether it’s making cuts to after-school programming, struggling to find transportation for students involved in extracurricular activities, furloughing teachers, or setting up overflow classroom seating in hallways, district administrators at poorly funded schools are constantly making difficult decisions.
“I have to minimize collateral damages in the district,” said Brian Waite, the superintendent of Shenandoah Valley School District, located in northeastern Pennsylvania with an enrollment of about 1,000 students and one of the six districts that were plaintiffs in the funding lawsuit. “Every day I make those decisions.”
Waite recently had to decide between reducing large class sizes or maintaining a reading support program for struggling students. He conducted a risk assessment for making each choice, and ultimately decided to shutter the reading program.
The decision was painful. “I had to figure out which is better value, and I shouldn’t have to do that,” he said.
Waite hopes to see Pennsylvania lawmakers return to the funding issue as soon as they’re back at work on Sept. 26. He wants to be able to provide his students with new opportunities that are currently not available or only tenuously available.
With higher and more stable funding, “I wouldn’t have to worry about trading collateral damage for our students,” Waite said. “I would be able to provide them programming that they deserve, that schools in certain ZIP codes are able to provide for their students. I wouldn’t have to worry about providing at-risk learners the support they need for reading and math, which I do now have to worry about.”
Some administrators feel that they are not fulfilling the true purpose of their jobs when working in underfunded schools.
“It requires me to act in a role that is a little untraditional for a principal, which is grant writer, sponsor, [and] donor,” said Robert Palazzo, a principal at Panther Valley Elementary School in the 1,675-student Panther Valley School District in northeastern Pennsylvania, another of the six districts involved in the lawsuit. “A lot of my time is spent networking with different companies to try and retain our partnerships, so we don’t lose the funding they provide us.”
As an elementary school principal, he wishes he could focus more on expanding academic opportunities for his students or figuring out how to improve the school building and less on raising money. His school’s bathrooms are small and outdated. There’s no playground for recess. STEM opportunities for his young students are few and far between.
As a result, he has assumed the role of school advocate as the school continues to search for outside grants to keep running and providing programs for its students.
“I wish I could concentrate on looking really close at what we’re doing to increase our student performance in reading, which I do, but I am also worried about all these other things, like clawing to find grants to provide our students with opportunities,” Palazzo said.
Without proper funding, there are numerous missed opportunities for students as well as faculty, said Costello, the superintendent in Wilkes-Barre.
Out of more than 500 students in 12th grade, only 15 end up enrolling in AP Calculus each year. That’s not because most students don’t want to take it—it’s because they can’t, he said.
Without adequate funding, the district struggles to provide extra resources, such as after-school help or tutoring, for students struggling with math. Many make it to senior year too far behind on prerequisites to qualify for AP Calculus.
“If we had the necessary funding, we would be able to identify those students and then act upon it and provide them with additional resources” in earlier grades, Costello said.
Faculty and staff miss out on professional development opportunities and suffer from understaffed school buildings, Costello said. The district of more than 7,000 students doesn’t have the funding needed to hire enough teachers, he said.
Because he has to work within the provided budget, he feels he is unable to reach every student.
“It most certainly is heartbreaking when you realize that there are students that you’re just not getting to,” he said.
Moving forward, Costello hopes Pennsylvania policymakers will see the urgency in solving the funding issue.
“Our students should be the strongest investment we make within the Commonwealth, so I believe that by properly funding school districts and allowing school leaders to make the decisions on exactly what is needed most certainly seems like an appropriate way to move forward,” he said.
Although the lawsuit has been settled and Pennsylvania’s school funding formula has been deemed unconstitutional, the districts’ and organizations’ legal teams have continued to offer support to their plaintiffs following the judge’s ruling.
While a Basic Education Funding Commission—a 15-member group made up of three members from each legislative caucus and three representatives of Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administration—has formed, the legal teams want to make sure that the commission will represent their clients’ interests once they start testifying in September. The commission is charged with reviewing the distribution of funding for education and providing a comprehensive report of its findings to the General Assembly.
“We are very pleased that there is a Basic Education Funding Commission that will be starting hearings in September,” said Maura McInerney, legal director at the Education Law Center Pennsylvania, which also represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “We want to ensure that the testimony that is presented includes the voices of schools that are underfunded, the voices of our clients and the organizations we represent and ensures that we are creating that constitutionally compliant system.”
Moving forward, the lawyers said the focus will be on getting Pennsylvania lawmakers to understand the urgency of the issue and coming up with solutions after the lawsuit.
While Urevick-Ackelsberg and McInerney are approaching conversations with legislators in good faith, they are willing to go back to the courts if they don’t think they’re complying with the court’s ruling. However, they both have hope moving forward, especially given the firm ruling from the court.
“The court’s decision in this case is really significant,” McInerney said. “It does mean that every child is entitled to that comprehensive, contemporary, effective education. And in addition, the court also held that education is a fundamental right in our state, and that is critically important in ensuring that all children have access to a quality education across the state.”
Mark Lieberman, Reporter contributed to this article.