“Cutting Through Bone:” PA’s School Funding System Deprives Students Across the State

Fourth graders in the William Penn School District

On July 6, 2018, in a new filing in our school funding lawsuit, we reported that state funding available for classroom expenses in Pennsylvania has declined by $155.3 million since 2013, and spending gaps between wealthy and poor school districts have widened. We filed the brief and affidavits in response to Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati’s claim that our case, William Penn et  al. v. PA Dept. of Ed. et al., was rendered moot by the state legislature’s adoption of a new funding formula in 2016. 

To the contrary, not only has the legislature failed to fix Pennsylvania’s inadequate and inequitable state funding system, but conditions have actually gotten worse. Our filing included affidavits, summarized below, from the superintendents of six Pennsylvania school districts who are petitioners in the lawsuit.

Put together, the stories from each district paint a clear picture: Pennsylvania’s school funding system has continued to deprive districts of the resources necessary to provide all children with an education that allows them to grow to the best of their capacity and potential. We are more determined than ever that students have their day in court. And when that day comes, we intend to be ready to win.

Greater Johnstown School District

  • Location: Cambria County, Southwestern PA
  • District total population: 26,700
  • Economically disadvantaged students: 86%
  • 2016-17 spending per weighted student:  $9,438 (State median: $12,264)
  • 2016-17 local tax rate: 19.6 equalized mills (State median: 18.2)

In her affidavit, Superintendent Amy Arcurio reports that many Greater Johnstown students and their families are affected by the opiate crisis. Because of this, students often come to school behind many of their peers, faced with ongoing trauma and in need of extra support.

“We know a number of programs that are proven to work for our children, from intensive interventions and trauma informed therapy, to smaller class sizes and adequate counselors,” Greater Johnstown Superintendent Amy Arcurio wrote in her affidavit. “But we don’t provide them, for one reason only: a lack of funding.”

Last year, Greater Johnstown closed an aging middle school rather than repairing it. This year, they were forced to eliminate five teachers, adding to the total of 50 teaching positions lost since 2010. As a result, class sizes have grown throughout the district.

William Penn School District

  • Location: Delaware County, Southeastern PA
  • District total population: 42,100
  • Economically disadvantaged students: 72%
  • 2016-17 spending per weighted student:  $13,242 (State median: $12,264)
  • 2016-17 local tax rate: 33.9 equalized mills (State median: 18.2)

In response to the 2011 state budget cuts, William Penn was forced to eliminate 57 teacher positions, five administrative positions, and 12 support staff positions. They have not been able to restore these positions. Continued teacher layoffs have increased class sizes to the point that the district currently has 46 elementary school classrooms with over 30 students in them.

“I believe that our students have normalized their deprivation. That should not continue.”
– Jane Harbert, William Penn School District Superintendent

In the last two years, due to lack of funding, William Penn eliminated a principal and two vice-principals. “As a result, we have a single principal, with no vice-principals, split between two different elementary schools, miles apart from each other,” Superintendent Jane Harbert wrote.

Despite taxing its residents at the highest rate of any school in the Philadelphia metro area and the fifth highest rate in the state, William Penn still goes without basic instructional equipment, like projectors, white boards, or current textbooks. One class uses a writing textbook from 1994; another, a French textbook from 1997.

“I believe that our students have normalized their deprivation,” Harbert wrote. “That should not continue.”

Wilkes-Barre Area School District

  • Location: Luzerne County, Northeastern PA
  • District total population: 59,900
  • Economically disadvantaged students: 77%
  • 2016-17 spending per weighted student:  $9,742 (State median: $12,264)
  • 2016-17 local tax rate: 22 equalized mills (State median: 18.2)

Superintendent Brian Costello describes continuing cuts since the lawsuit was filed. In the 2016-17 school year alone, Wilkes-Barre furloughed 37 teachers and 22 secretaries. Since 2010-11, their teaching workforce has been reduced by 10 percent. As a result, class sizes have swelled. Elementary school classes now hold between 26 and 27 students.

“While research has established that it would be beneficial to our students to lower these ratios, we cannot afford to do so,” Costello wrote.  

At Meyers High School, the facade and bricks are crumbling, creating a danger of falling debris. The district lacks the funds to fix it–the school is surrounded by fencing, and students and staff enter underneath protective sheds.

Wilkes-Barre has a high rate of students with disabilities, and the district bears the bulk of the cost of resources they need. Last year, the district spent approximately $18 million on special education services, but the state provide $4.9 million in support–only 27 percent of the cost.

Shenandoah Valley School District

  • Location: Schuylkill County, Northeastern PA
  • District total population: 7,900
  • Economically disadvantaged students: 65%
  • 2016-17 spending per weighted student:  $8,342 (State median: $12,264)
  • 2016-17 local tax rate: 29.7 equalized mills (State median: 18.2)

In response to budget cuts in 2012-13, Shenandoah Valley was forced to furlough ten teachers, including all of their librarians. They cut art and physical education for elementary school students, as well as after-school tutoring. Due to a continued lack of funding, these programs and positions have not been restored.

In addition, the district was forced to eliminate transportation services inside the Borough of Shenandoah.  “As a result, children as young as four years old are forced to walk to school, including on the sides of roads that have no sidewalks,” Superintendent Brian K. Waite wrote.

“We have long since cut any fat from our district budget. For many years now, we have been cutting through bone.”
– Brian K. Waite, Shenandoah Valley School District Superintendent

Many of Shenandoah Valley’s students live in poverty and are learning English. In particular, their population of English language learners has increased seven-fold since 2000-01, from 15 to 108 students. In order to provide more services to these students under the financial constraints they face, the district must reduce important education programs elsewhere.

“We have long since cut any fat from our district budget. For many years now, we have been cutting through bone,” Waite wrote. “This impacts all of our students, but particularly those struggling and at-risk students who most need the help to catch up to their peers.”

Panther Valley School District

  • Location: Carbon & Schuylkill Counties, Northeastern PA
  • District total population: 12,600
  • Economically disadvantaged students: 51%
  • 2016-17 spending per weighted student:  $9,626 (State median: $12,264)
  • 2016-17 local tax rate: 29.5 equalized mills (State median: 18.2)

In response to the 2011 state education budget cuts, Panther Valley reduced teaching staff at all levels of the district, and cut several sports programs, like swimming and cross country. Due to a lack of funding, these positions and programs have not been restored. Cuts to programs have continued. This year, the district was forced to reduce music instruction for elementary school students.

“Cutting music and arts programming is particularly difficult to do,” Superintendent Dennis Kergick wrote, “because these are the types of programs that often give struggling children a reason to come to school.”

“We are criticized for the performance of our students on state assessment scores. Yet it is the state funding system which prevents us from providing basic resources that our educators know our students need.” – Dennis Kergick, Panther Valley School District Superintendent

Children with greater remedial needs are some of the hardest hit by funding constraints in Panther Valley. In the Panther Valley Intermediate School, there is one reading specialist serving 450 students. 

“We are criticized for the performance of our students on state assessment scores,” Kergick wrote. “Yet it is the state funding system which prevents us from providing basic resources that our educators know our students need.”

School District of Lancaster

  • Location: Lancaster County, Southeastern PA
  • District total population: 75,000
  • Economically disadvantaged students: 91%
  • 2016-17 spending per weighted student:  $10,637 (State median: $12,264)
  • 2016-17 local tax rate: 24.5 equalized mills (State median: 18.2)

Students in Lancaster have significant and increasing needs. Lancaster is home to a growing population of refugees and English language learners. After Hurricane Maria, the district took in about 300 children from Puerto Rico.

“In order to get these children on an accelerated path,” Superintendent Damaris Rau wrote, “we need more teachers and specialists to provide individualized instruction to them. Due to a lack of funding, however, we cannot afford to hire them.”

Students with serious social and emotional needs are also under-served due to a lack of funding. Currently, the district has one professional staff person helping students with these significant needs for every 600 students enrolled in the district.

There are approximately 500 children on the wait-list for Pre-K in Lancaster, but as a result of insufficient funding, the district cannot afford to expand the program.

Young students are among those most affected by gaps in funding. Many kindergarteners in the district begin their schooling with serious deficits. Lancaster’s current Pre-K program serves approximately 400 children, and those who attend are far more likely to be assessed as ready for kindergarten. Eighty percent of kindergartners who have not attended the Pre-K program are tested as not ready for Kindergarten. 

Read our filing, including the complete affidavits from districts, here. Affidavits start on page 66 of the PDF.