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March 25, 2023 12:17 am

Opinion

Pa. Has an Unprecedented Opportunity to Fix Public School Funding. We Can’t Miss It | Opinion

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by Capital-Star Guest Contributor, Pennsylvania Capital-Star

By Laura Boyce

In a monumental ruling earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled that our commonwealth’s current system of school funding is unconstitutional.

In her decision, Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer declared that the present system is discriminatory against students in poor districts and violates the education clause of our constitution, which “requires that every student receive a meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and civically,” as well as the equal protection clause.

The ruling details the myriad ways in which students in poor districts are denied access to equal educational opportunities: too few educators and mental health professionals at a time of unprecedented learning loss and mental health needs, crumbling school facilities, and less access to advanced coursework and extracurricular activities and enrichment opportunities.

While the decision is almost 800 pages long, it boils down to a very simple concept, one that anyone trying to teach or learn in an underfunded school has known for years: This isn’t fair.

The concept of fairness is one my three-year-old son already grasps clearly (whether it’s a classmate getting more time with a toy or another toddler breaking in line for the slide at the playground), and it’s certainly one that Pennsylvania’s students understand.

When I taught high school in Philadelphia – one of the most underfunded districts in the state – my students occasionally had the opportunity to visit schools in nearby suburban districts for sports or academic competitions.

Their immediate reaction when they saw state-of-the-art facilities and heard about the school trips, summer programs, and college visits their peers had access to was simple: That’s not fair. Don’t we deserve these same opportunities?

It’s gratifying to have our judicial branch validate the unfairness that so many students, teachers, and families have lived firsthand.

The court’s ruling is a victory for all kids in Pennsylvania, and particularly those Black, brown, and low-income students who have suffered the most under our current unfair and unconstitutional system. But Judge Jubelirer didn’t prescribe a solution in her decision; instead, she charged the Legislature and executive branch with the task of “mak[ing] the constitutional promise a reality in this Commonwealth.”

So where do we go from here?

It would be easy for this ruling to become just one more thing to fight about in Harrisburg. Our state leaders could try to buy time by appealing the decision, argue about whose problem this is to fix, and make this a partisan issue for more political one-upmanship. But this is a moment of opportunity; a moment of not only constitutional clarity but moral clarity.

No matter our party, we know that all our students deserve an equal shot to be successful.

We know deep down, as Judge Jubilerer’s decision concluded, that a system where the students who need the most get the least because of where they live is fundamentally unfair.

And at this moment, the eyes of over a million children across Pennsylvania are on our state leaders, wondering, “Are you going to treat my future like a political football, or are you going to give my school the resources I need to succeed this year, this budget, before it’s too late for me?”

Then-state Attorney General Josh Shapiro wrote a brief in support of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and he went on to make full funding of our schools a central pillar of his gubernatorial campaign.

And while our legislators in Harrisburg may not agree on much, I trust that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle believe in the children of Pennsylvania and understand their constitutional obligation to fix our broken funding system.

We know that our system needs over $4 billion to close the adequacy gap and provide every school with the resources they need to provide a thorough and efficient education to every child.

This budget season, now-Gov. Shapiro and legislative leaders must come together to make a substantial down payment on that $4 billion we owe Pennsylvania’s students by investing at least $1 billion in basic education funding this budget, with one-third of that going through the state’s Level Up program to our most underfunded districts.

It’s critical that our leaders don’t kick the can down the road by waiting for appeals; our schools are at a moment of crisis, facing unprecedented learning loss, mental health needs, and teacher shortages, and we risk losing a generation of students if our leaders stall.

That second-grader in Panther Valley who’s already behind in reading only gets one chance to read on grade level by the end of third grade, which has lifelong consequences; she doesn’t get a do-over if we don’t act now.

There’s never been a better time for state leaders to come together and start working to fix our unconstitutional school funding system.

With billions of surplus dollars in the rainy day fund and general fund, we can afford a historic investment in our schools, which is not only required by the court decision but a smart economic decision that voters of all parties support. Most importantly, our kids–not just some kids, not just kids in wealthy districts, but all kids–deserve a great education.

Let’s show our children that in Pennsylvania, we believe in fairness, we believe in equal opportunity, and we believe in them – our future.

Laura Boyce is the executive director of Teach Plus Pennsylvania and a former teacher and principal. Readers may email her at lboyce@teachplus.org.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter