“We cannot continue to do more with less,” School District of Lancaster Acting Superintendent Matt Przywara said Tuesday morning.
Przywara was joined at Lincoln Middle School by the superintendents of the Pottstown and Reading districts. Together, the three called for “sufficient and sustainable funding for public schools,” particularly those in historically underfunded districts.
“We feel it is our duty to speak up not only behalf of our school district, but most importantly on behalf of our students,” Przywara said.
The media conference was one of five held simultaneously statewide. They were organized by the Pennsylvania League of Urban Schools, a caucus of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, to make the case for additional education funding as legislators hold hearings on Pennsylvania’s 2023-24 school budget.
Looming over those discussions is the recent Commonwealth Court decision ruling that Pennsylvania’s education funding is unconstitutionally unfair, depriving students in low-income districts of their right to a “thorough and efficient” education. SDL was one of the plaintiffs in the case.
Gov. Josh Shapiro budget, the Democrat’s first, calls for $567.4 million more for basic education funding and $103.8 million more for special education funding: Each represents a 7.8% increase.
Fair funding advocates have called for still more, and for more to be directed to the state’s poorest districts.
“We will see higher rates of student success if we are given equitable funding,” said Amanda Aikens, a veteran teacher and instructional coach at King Elementary School who testified for SDL in the school funding case.
The district needs to be able to hire more teachers to reduce class size, she said: At-risk students need more counselors and specialists, and SDL’s many refugee and immigrant students need more English as a Second Language instructors.
Senior Frances Brogan is enrolled in McCaskey High School’s International Baccalaureate program. Fair funding, she said, would help close the achievement gap that results in SDL’s IB enrollment being 80% White, despite White students making up only 15% of overall district enrollment.
She noted that neighboring Manheim Township’s IB program has significantly more funding, enough for a trip to Ecuador, among other things. SDL isn’t asking for that, she said, just for “the resources we need to better serve our own community.
Superintendents Stephen Rodriguez and Jennifer Murray, representing the Pottstown and Reading school districts, respectively, called out the state’s policy for charter school and cyber charter funding, which they said shortchanges public school systems, effectively providing charters more than their fair share, yet without demanding appropriate accountability.
They both said their districts have put the increased funding they’ve received in recent state budgets to good use. The Pottstown district purchased a new curriculum that dramatically improved elementary school reading levels, while the addition of counselors at the middle school level cut disciplinary problems in half, Rodriguez said.
Murray highlighted the Reading district’s paid internship programs, which offer students real world experience, including posts as teaching assistants. They are inspiring many students in the district, which is 85% Latino, to consider a career in education, thus creating a pipeline of future bilingual, bicultural teachers, she said.
Republican legislators have been pushing back against the calls for more money. They say school funding increases haven’t led to better test scores and accuse the Shapiro administration of “doubling down on a failed status quo.”
In a recent op-ed, state Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, said students “have been failed” by “an antiquated system” that is ill adapted to current needs.
Republicans have a 28-22 majority in the Senate; Democrats have a narrow 102-101 majority in the House.
Asked if any of the increased funding the League of Urban Schools is seeking could help pay for SDL’s upcoming school renovation program, Przywara said it would not. The state used to have a cost-sharing program to help districts with construction, but it no longer does.
SDL previously pegged the cost of its renovations at $200 million. The district has proposed raising taxes 1.75% a year through 2028 to pay for it: “That is all on the backs of our real estate taxpayers,” the superintendent said.
The three superintendents agreed that property tax reform needs to be part of the state funding discussion at some point. Urban property owners typically pay a larger percentage of their income on property taxes; meanwhile, some rural districts with declining enrollment have seen large run-ups in per-student funding, allowing them to minimize property taxes or avoid them altogether.
“That is an equity issue that we must address from east to west,” Rodriguez said.
Districts with limited tax bases still have to invest in their schools, Rodriguez said, to support the children and families and businesses in their communities with the best education possible. Unfortunately, the state’s inequities make it an extremely difficult balancing act for them, he said.
Students’ ZIP code, Aikens said, “should not determine the quality of their educational opportunities.”
(Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove a reference to Przywara saying SDL’s renovations could cost $250 million. A district spokesperson subsequently said he misspoke.)