Critics say Pennsylvania school funding does real damage to children
Norristown, Pottstown prime examples of state’s inequities in case before the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.
By EMMA RESTREPO |
PUBLISHED: February 4, 2022 at 8:08 p.m. | UPDATED: February 4, 2022 at 8:43 p.m.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of four articles written for the disParities Media Project of Children First regarding Pennsylvania public school education.
Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court is hearing a groundbreaking case on the constitutionality of the state’s system of funding schools.
The plaintiffs in the suit and their attorneys hope this trial, which is expected to last another month, will lay out vividly for lawmakers, the courts and the public how the inequities of public school aid in Pennsylvania do real damage to real children.
The case — filed in 2014 by six school districts, five parents, and two organizations — marks the first time in the state’s history that the court is diving into the issue. Since Nov. 12, rural, western and central Pennsylvania school district plaintiffs have taken the stand. As the trial has progressed, the evidence presented is coming from closer to home as districts in southeastern Pennsylvania have made their case including William Penn (the lead plaintiff) and the Philadelphia School District.
Defendants in the case are the governor, legislative leaders, and top education officials. Gov. Wolf generally agrees with the plaintiffs that the state’s approach to funding public education needs to be reworked, evidenced by court filings for the executive branch that state, “While Act 35 established a new, permanent school funding formula and had significant impact on the education funding scheme, unfortunately, as petitioners’ brief highlights, much work remains to be done before petitioners’ claims are no longer relevant or capable of adjudication.”
“Pennsylvania is one of the worst states in the country in terms of the wide differences between what’s available for a child growing up in a well-to-do, wealthy district, and how much money is available for another child who’s got to grow up in the same country, but just lives in a different ZIP code,” said Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center, one of the nonprofit legal organizations helping to represent the plaintiffs. The other is the Pennsylvania Education Law Center.
“I remember when my child went to school in Norristown, he was in 7th grade,” said Angela Hinton, the president of the Norristown branch of the NAACP. The state chapter of the NAACP is one of the petitioners in the suit.
“I asked why he didn’t have homework, and I was told they did not have enough books to send home.”
Hinton found a second job so she could afford to enroll her son in a Catholic school. Eventually, they moved out of Norristown to a better-resourced school district.
The National Education Law Center, which regularly grades state education funding systems, actually gave Pennsylvania A’s for its funding “level” and “effort” in 2020. This is an upgrade over the state’s grades before the legislature and Wolf agreed on a new funding formula in 2016.
The commonwealth, however, still got an F for how it distributes the tax money it collects.
The Pennsylvania Education Law Center explained how that can be. The first problem is that Pennsylvania is one of only seven states that generates more than 60 percent of its public school funding from local taxes. Only 38 percent comes from the state.
What that means, the Law Center said, is that “property taxpayers in lower-wealth districts have to make up the difference. They actually pay higher tax rates than those in wealthy districts.” But it’s not enough, and every year these districts struggle to meet the needs of their students, who are more likely to live in poverty or speak English as a second language.
School districts also cannot receive less funding than the prior year. At first glance, that might seem like a fair public policy.
In practice, however, it produces strange and inequitable results. Children First, a nonprofit organization that advocates for children’s rights put out a report in 2021 titled “Hold Harmless: A Quarter Century of Inequity at the Heart of Pennsylvania’s School System.”
The report explains the problem: “Pennsylvania’s school districts have undergone massive enrollment shifts over the past three decades. (…) The school districts with declining enrollment have benefitted from the funding distortions caused by ‘hold harmless.’ The districts have lost a total of 167,000 students since 1991-92 — a fifth of their student body — but they haven’t lost any money, instead of receiving increased funding each year. They now have $590 million tied to students they no longer educate.”
Pittsburgh, where enrollment dropped by nearly 50 percent since “hold harmless” went into effect, is the biggest example of a district where enrollment declines and “hold harmless” have combined to send per-pupil resources soaring. New Hope Solebury is one of the southeastern Pennsylvania districts that has benefited from this system.
Their gain leaves less state aid for the districts with growing numbers of lower-income students who may need expensive extra services.
Pottstown and Norristown are two examples of districts getting hammered by “hold harmless.” In Pottstown, student enrollment has grown by 9.7 percent from 2010 to 2020.
Most of those new students are Latino. But, according to Stephen Rodriguez, Pottstown’s superintendent, recent tight funding resulted in cuts to foreign language offerings in high school, and layoffs of educational professionals and administrative staff.
Norristown, meanwhile, has seen enrollment rise by 13 percent during the same decade, most of the new students again being Latino. Norristown’s superintendent, Christopher Dormer, said Norristown Area High School endured a painful reduction of 11 teaching positions in the 2017-2018 school year.
“In the last few decades, post-industrial cities have suffered a lot – places like Norristown, Conshohocken, Pottstown, and I’m sure other areas of the state have, too,” said Peggy Lee-Clark, CEO of Pottstown Area Economic Development Inc. (PAED).
In Norristown and Pottstown, large companies have either disappeared or moved to newer locations. At the same time, more tax-exempt non-profit organizations have settled in the area.
Although in the last 10 years, Norristown and Pottstown raised property taxes 10 and six times, respectively, it has not been enough to fill the gap left by the state’s inequitable distribution of funds for education.
While the “Fair Funding Formula” passed in 2016 has helped, Tomea Sippio-Smith, Children First’s K-12 Education Policy Director, said it fell short.
“The formula considers factors in poverty and whether the poverty concentration is deep,” she said. That is good. “But it applies only to new funding. That means 89 percent of state Basic Education Funding is still distributed through the hold harmless-based method.”
Rodriguez said he believes the resulting lack of state aid has had a huge impact on students.
“There is no question that the students in the Pottstown School District have fewer resources and deal with more struggles than their suburban counterparts,” he said.
The “hold harmless” policy keeps harming, Rodriguez argued.
“Unless people understand the harm that is being done to kids in the state — mostly, I think Black and Brown [students] — it won’t change,” he said.
Norristown Schools Superintendent Christopher Dormer agrees. He said that addressing these funding inequities is clearly the state’s job, under the “thorough and efficient” clause of the Constitution.
“The state may have to intervene in districts that can’t generate enough through local property taxes and give them some additional monies to ensure they have the same opportunities as more affluent communities,” Dormer said.
State lawmakers, however, have been reluctant to take on the task – which led to the lawsuit now being heard in Commonwealth Court.
Some former students, too, are calling on the state to reexamine its funding policies and ensure equitable opportunities for education.
Thaddaeus Peay, a former Norristown School District student, believes “the way the money is distributed needs to change.” Today, Peay studies education at Cabrini University. He hopes one day to teach African American history in the Norristown School District.
“They [legislators] don’t need to do away with the formula itself,” he says. “They need to really reevaluate how much money is going into the formula, so it’ll work for all school districts.”
These discrepancies in funding become even more evident when external forces put more pressure on districts. For example, the pandemic.
“I witnessed that for the Norristown School District, their primary focus was making sure that people had something to eat,” Peay said. “Virtual education was not even a focus yet. People don’t have proper access to the internet. But wealthier school districts were able to go virtual in two days. Those students have something to eat.”
The suit is being brought by the William Penn, Panther Valley, Lancaster, Greater Johnstown, Wilkes Barre and Shenandoah Valley school districts, several parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — Pennsylvania State Conference.
“Everyone must understand that education is important for all people to succeed, regardless of color,” Churchill, the Public Interest Law Center attorney, said. “Pennsylvania has for a long time operated against children of color.”
The stakes in this lawsuit are high.
“If we win,” Churchill said, “the legislature will have to vote to change the system and find the resources to fix it. It will be in the order of years. But given how important this is, for all our children, we need to do it.”