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United Way of Lancaster County


Advocates rally in Ewell Plaza for increases in state education funding

Dwayne Heisler of Pennsylvanians Together, at podium, speaks during a rally in Ewell Plaza on Tuesday, July 9, 2024. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Dwayne Heisler

As Pennsylvania enters the second week of its 2024-25 fiscal year without a budget, progressive groups are stepping up their call for increased K-12 education funding and more support for working families.

“It’s time to fund our public schools and improve our communities,” Dwayne Heisler said during a rally Tuesday in Ewell Plaza in downtown Lancaster.

Heisler is the campaign director of Pennsylvanians Together, a coalition led by the Pennsylvania Policy Center and SEIU State Council. Its leadership team includes representatives of more than a dozen grassroots organizations.

Flanked by “Mr. Riggs,” an inflatable “fat cat” representing corporate and moneyed interests, Heisler and a half dozen other speakers made their case for a major increase in public education support, echoing the themes of a rally held in Millersville last month.

“Money should go where it benefits everyday Pennsylvanians,” not billionaires and affluent companies, Heisler said.

In early June, the state House passed a bill to increase basic education spending by $1.1 billion in 2024-25, part of a $5.1 billion increase over seven years.

The increase is intended to remedy the shortfalls and inequities that led the state Supreme Court to declare Pennsylvania’s education funding unconstitutional.

Jessica Lua stands amid signs carried by her fellow activists.

The current system provides more to the haves and less to the have-nots, said School District of Lancaster teacher Kristen Haase.

“We deserve an education with equity,” said Jessica Lua, a high school student and member of CASA, an advocacy group representing immigrants and working families.

Under the bill, funding would be distributed according to a formula that accounts for students’ family incomes, English as a Second Language learners and special education needs. The plan aligns with Gov. Josh Shapiro’s budget proposal, which in turn followed recommendations in the state’s Basic Education Funding Commission’s majority report.

This table shows the additional funding that Lancaster County school districts would receive in 2024-25 under the bill the state House passed in June. (Source: Pa. House)

The bill is now before the Senate’s Education Committee. Rally participants carried signs calling on state Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, to take action on education funding. Martin is not on the education committee, but as chair of the Appropriations Committee, he is one of the principal budget negotiators.

It’s time for the Senate to act, Heisler said.

Martin and his fellow Republicans have pushed back against the Democrats’ education proposals, accusing them of throwing unsustainable amounts of money at public education and saying any increases should be coupled with systemic reform and modernization.

Republicans are seeking to promote vouchers and tax credits for private education. School choice is “the ultimate form of accountability,” Martin told the Pennsylvania Press Club in May.

Pennsylvania’s House has a narrow Democratic majority, while the Senate has a 28-22 Republican majority.

Cheryl Desmond

Advocates for public schools say they serve all students without discriminating. Public resources shouldn’t be diverted to private educators that have leeway to pick and choose their students, said Cheryl Desmond, a School District of Lancaster board member.

“What about the rest of us?” she said.

Education funding is one of five priorities that Pennsylvanians Together has for the 2024-25 budget, Heisler said. The other four are:

  • A “limited” tax cut for working families, such as a state earned income tax credit;
  • Implementing the “Grow PA” program, which would provide grants to students pursuing higher education in high-demand fields. The Senate passed the Grow PA package in June; Martin sponsored several of the bills it comprises.
  • A quick ramp-up to a $15 state minimum wage, with cost of living adjustments thereafter
  • New funding for the Whole Home Repair program

“Money should go where it benefits everyday Pennsylvanians,” Heisler said.

Susan Noll, district office director for state Rep. Ismail Smith-Wade-El, D-Lancaster, read a statement from him touting the caucus’ budget proposals on education and housing and concluding: “Let’s get it done.”

Pennsylvania’s fiscal year began July 1. Negotiators say they are working in good faith and hope to have a deal soon, but they have not released details.