Updated: Sept. 15, 12:45 p.m.
PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Fixing Pennsylvania's school funding system is the mission of a panel that has begun a series of 10 hearings across the state.
The 15-member Basic Education Funding Commission is gathering input on making K-12 school funding more equitable, following February's Commonwealth Court ruling declaring the current system unconstitutional. Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer ruled that the state's system of funding public education shortchanges students in districts with low property values.
Undoing decades of inequitable funding
“In order for this commission to be effective we cannot have a preconceived idea or notion where this commission will go or where this outcome will be,” said State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill at the most third and most recent hearing, on Thursday, at the School District of Philadelphia headquarters.
The York Republican co-chairs the Commission with Rep. Mike Sturla, a Democrat from Lancaster.
Superintendents, teachers and others from nearby districts spoke at the hearing to address education funding inequity and answered questions from members of the bipartisan Commission. Environmental conditions, technology and school safety were among the topics of discussion.
School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Tony Watlington was the first to testify.
“Our students absolutely deserve an educational landscape where every student can reach their full potential and contribute to the prosperity and growth of their community and to this commonwealth,” he said.
Watlington has touted an ambitious five-year strategic plan for the district and has said he lacks the funding to carry it out.
“The Pennsylvania public school funding system has inadequately and inequitably funded low-wealth school districts for decades. The funding system systematically harmed the very districts that need the most resources … those districts who serve students with the greatest needs,” Watlington told the commission.
Watlington said in addition to the district’s need to give every student a high-quality education, school buildings are in urgent need of facility upgrades — including air conditioning.
“We have to take those 57% of school buildings that don’t have adequate air conditioning and get them air conditioning sooner rather than later, so our young people can continue to grow in the summer and not experience a summer slide, year after year after year,” he said.
A $6.2 billion problem
At its first hearing, Tuesday, the commission heard from a Penn State professor who testified Philadelphia needs almost $8,000 more per student just to provide an adequate education and that the entire state is underfunded by $6.2 billion.
At a hearing Wednesday in Harrisburg, Brian Costello, the schools superintendent in Wilkes-Barre, said his district is one of the poorest in the state, and his students require more services, such as intervention specialists, small group learning and guidance counselors.
“But because state funding is insufficient and local funding is unavailable, we have less," Costello told the panel. "Districts like mine without local wealth to draw from are forced to choose between unacceptable options every school year. Ladies and gentlemen, it's not complicated. When you are able to invest in teaching and learning, students can achieve great things."
David McAndrews, superintendent of the Panther Valley School District, near Jim Thorpe, said because his community is not wealthy, local taxes can't adequately support schools.
"I'm here to help you understand what the court understood: that our kids deserve much more," he said. "I ask the commission to design a new, fair system, one with sufficient state funding based on our students' potential, not on our community's wealth."
The panel is working to determine the costs for each school district, and what an equitable state share would be.
Democratic state Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia suggested investing some of the state's extra money to increase subsidies to schools. "The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania sits on a budget surplus of $8 billion, plus a rainy day fund of $5.3 billion," Hughes detailed.
Phillips-Hill warned against spending one-time money on recurring school expenses. "If we use those dollars to fund the request, we would be making the exact same mistake,” she said.
State Sen. David Argall, a Republican from Schuylkill County on the commission, said additional taxpayer money doesn't seem to have resulted in increased test scores.
"Can you guarantee us that these dollars, if we can scrape them together, will result in better outcomes at Panther Valley?" Argall asked McAndrews.
"Yes, I think my district has limitless potential," McAndrews replied.
Hearings are expected to continue throughout the commonwealth into the fall. The Commission has to issue a report to the legislature by Nov. 30.