Note: This piece was first published as a guest editorial in Penn Live on December 23, 2023. It lays out the critical importance of the upcoming report from the Basic Education Funding Commission, due January 11, 2024. The commission is charged with developing a plan for a constitutional public school funding system in response to Commonwealth Court’s decision in the school funding lawsuit.
By Claudia De Palma, senior attorney at the Public Interest Law Center, and Maura McInerney, legal director at Education Law Center-PA.
Each year in Carbon County’s Panther Valley School District, the district must choose which vital resources their students receive, and which they must go without.
Elementary school class sizes can reach 28, often with no teachers’ aides, even in kindergarten. At any given time in the small district, 10 teachers are filling in classes outside their certified subject. The district’s student population is growing rapidly, but there is no clear path to pay for the new school they need. Instead, elementary school students learn inside a 60-year-old building with no air conditioning, in a time of frequent heat waves.
This is not a Panther Valley problem, but a statewide tragedy that is playing out across the commonwealth: the triaging of the futures of hundreds of thousands of children, because of Pennsylvania’s inadequate system of funding public schools. It means school principals in Greater Johnstown choosing which of their struggling readers get time with a reading specialist; teachers in overcrowded kindergartens in Delaware County deciding which of their students get attention and support; and educators in Shenandoah Valley teaching two classes at the same time in the same room.
As a landmark decision from Commonwealth Court in February in our school funding lawsuit made plain, the triage, along with the impossible choices it creates, is also unconstitutional. The court declared that insufficient state funding and an over reliance on local wealth deprive children of their rights to a contemporary, effective education.
As Gov. Josh Shapiro – who filed a brief in support of the case while attorney general – explained in his first budget address, the court’s well-supported decision was almost certain to stand. And indeed, it was not appealed.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do right by our kids, to fund our schools,” the governor said.
The next stage in this journey – deciding how much more funding is needed and how to provide it – is happening now. The Basic Education Funding Commission, a bipartisan panel of legislators and Shapiro administration staff, has been working to develop a plan for a new funding system. Testimony the commission heard from across the state repeatedly echoed the same themes: State funding is inadequate, and inequity is its defining feature.
The commission’s January 11 deadline to issue its report is less than a month away. It is a fork in the road for the future of the commonwealth.
Read more at Penn Live.