Opinion: Pa. must adopt clear, sustainable plan to address unconstitutional school funding

charter school

(Shutterstock/Lopolo)

By Aaron Chapin

December 12, 2023

In an op-ed, Stroudsburg Area middle school teacher and president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, Aaron Chapin, calls on policymakers to address unconstitutional school funding.

Every morning, 1.7 million students wake up and head off to public schools across Pennsylvania, eager to learn and grow in classrooms that are supposed to provide them with a “thorough and efficient system of public education.”

That’s what our state constitution guarantees to every student.

But in February Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court ruled that our school funding system is so broken that it violates that fundamental, constitutional requirement.

As the court pointed out, the key problem is the wide disparity in school funding between the state’s wealthiest and poorest school districts.

Just how acute is the funding problem?

A Pennsylvania State Education Association analysis found that the 100 lowest-income school districts spend 30% less than the wealthiest 100 districts when you take into account student need.

And what does this mean?

It means that students in these underfunded schools are more likely to learn in buildings that are in dire need of repairs and renovations. It means that they often don’t have access to the same programs, materials, or technology as students in wealthier districts. And, more likely than not, it means that they are learning in schools with educator and support staff shortages.

Every public school student deserves to have access to a high-quality education. And now, with the Commonwealth Court calling for a solution to funding inequities, we have a chance to right these long-standing wrongs.

The educators and support staff who teach and serve our students know how serious this problem is, and we have ideas about how to solve it. I was privileged to share some of these ideas with Pennsylvania’s bipartisan Basic Education Funding Commission on Nov. 9.

Here’s what we should do.

First, we need to address the school staff shortage crisis, which is at its worst in Pennsylvania’s poorest school districts.

Pennsylvania cannot meet its constitutional obligation to our public school students without an adequate supply of well-trained, caring, and qualified educators and support staff. This problem won’t be fixed overnight, but we need to get started now.

Pennsylvania can start to address this problem by using state funding to raise the minimum salary for educators from $18,500 to $60,000 a year.

Not enough young people are entering the education profession. We need to signal to high school and college students that they will be able to earn a competitive, family-sustaining living as teachers in public school classrooms. Otherwise, we will continue to lose young people to better-paying careers or to teaching jobs in other states, like Maryland, which set a $60,000 minimum salary for teachers beginning in 2026.

We also need to pay education support staff, such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, and paraprofessionals, at least $20 an hour. Many of these essential staff members are paid much less than that, and we are losing them to jobs at Target or Costco, where they can make more money.

Second, Pennsylvania needs to ensure equity in school facilities. Buildings are a necessary component to a constitutional system of education, and too many of Pennsylvania’s public school buildings are crumbling and in need of major repairs and upgrades. The state should partner with school districts to finance long-neglected building projects.

Third, Pennsylvania needs to set adequate funding targets for school districts and include a transparent and sustainable plan for achieving them. This plan must give priority to kids in districts where the income equity gaps are the greatest.

Districts cannot hire more teachers, remodel buildings, purchase new school curricula, or offer better technology and classroom supplies without the money to pay for them.

Part of the funding remedy should be structured as charter school reimbursement. School districts need help covering the gigantic payments they must make to charter and cyber charter schools. Over the past decade, charter payments made by districts have increased by $1.4 billion, outpacing increases in basic education funding and falling most heavily on the poorest school districts.

Pennsylvania can help those districts by allocating at least $500 million to a charter school reimbursement line in the state budget, then indexing it to inflation going forward.

For the past few months, the Basic Education Funding Commission has been gathering testimony and ideas from experts and organizations. We expect a final report in early January.

No one expects the state to close funding gaps in a single year. However, our students deserve action now.

We call on policymakers to implement a clear, sustainable plan in 2024 that shows how Pennsylvania is going to give our public school students the resources they need to meet the commonwealth’s constitutional obligations. This is a problem that can and must be addressed.

Author

  • Aaron Chapin

    Aaron Chapin is a Stroudsburg Area middle school teacher and president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).

CATEGORIES: EDUCATION | POLITICS

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