June 25, 2021 — This year, funding advocates urged the legislature to get behind a historic proposal from Gov. Wolf for a massive investment in Pennsylvania’s underfunded schools, while also calling for action to address the extreme funding inequities between Pennsylvania school districts. Pennsylvania had a budget surplus of $3 billion and a package of uncommitted federal aid of more than $7 billion, and yet the legislature has responded with only a modest increase to the state’s basic education funding formula – $200 million – for the state’s 500 school districts, plus a $100 million supplement for the 100 districts that are the most underfunded. That is not nearly enough to even keep pace with the growing costs of special education, charter schools and pensions, or to make up for last year’s flat funding of schools. The state has missed a historic opportunity to make a substantial impact on the lives of Pennsylvania students.
As it should, the General Assembly is also distributing $500 million in one-time federal education dollars that it received through the American Rescue Plan, $350 million of which is to be used by local education agencies to address learning loss, summer enrichment, and afterschool programming. However, the legislature is leaving most of its $7 billion federal aid appropriation unspent.
While this year’s missed opportunities are a blow to our state’s schoolchildren, the budget does include for the first time an additional Level Up or equity supplement directed at the state’s 100 most severely underfunded school districts. The voices of superintendents, teachers, students and advocates made a difference here. While only a one-time adjustment to these districts’ base funding, by approving this supplement the state legislature has finally acknowledged the widening gaps between the haves and have-nots in Pennsylvania public education, and the profound shortchanging of students that remains the norm in the state’s lowest-wealth school districts.
Much more heavy lifting is still ahead of us. The Level Up allocation, like the state’s fair funding formula, is only as good as the money put through it. The Level Up appropriation is $100 million for these 100 districts, while their adequacy shortfall is in the billions. And 86% of Pennsylvania students still go to schools that are underfunded according to the state’s own standard.
Students will continue to be deprived of a quality education while waiting for the General Assembly to fundamentally change our state’s insufficient and unconscionably unequal method for funding public schools, which fuels some of the country’s deepest inequality between wealthy and poor school districts. Pennsylvania now ranks 45th in the country in the share of public school funding that comes from the state, leaving schools dependent on local property taxpayers. This means that local wealth determines which kids get the quality education they deserve, and which kids don’t. Our General Assembly has created a system where the students who need the most get the least, because of where they live.
“The General Assembly had a golden opportunity to begin to change this system in this years’ budget, with an unprecedented surplus. But they have always had the power, and the constitutional responsibility, to fund schools so that students in every community can prepare for life after graduation,” said Michael Churchill, attorney at the Public Interest Law Center. “They have failed to live up to this responsibility, and in September, they will face up to this failure in court.”
“For too long, our leaders in Harrisburg have refused to undertake their constitutional responsibility and turned a blind eye to the boundless potential of hundreds of thousands of children because they were born in low-wealth communities,” said Maura McInerney, legal director at Education Law Center-PA. “In doing so, they have denied generations of students their rights and undermined the future of Pennsylvania. This is why we are in court.”