Sixty-four years after Rosa Parks prompted the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycotts, school and political leaders in Lancaster gathered outside Martin Luther King Elementary School to call attention to what they say has effectively become a “segregated school system.”

That’s according to School District of Lancaster Superintendent Damaris Rau, who led a press conference Thursday alongside state Rep. Mike Sturla (D-Lancaster), Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace, fifth-grade teacher Amanda Aikens and others to raise awareness for the struggles they say urban school districts with high percentages of low-income and nonwhite students face.

The rally — and about 20 others across the state — was organized by the Pennsylvania League of Urban Schools and focused on inequitable school funding and rising charter tuition costs. 

Equitable funding

“The quality of a child’s education in this state is too often determined by their zip code, and that is simply not fair,” Rau said, adding that Lancaster “cannot generate the same kind of revenue as our wealthy and suburban neighbors.”

According to Pennsylvania Department of Education revenue data from 2017-18, the latest school year available, the state and federal governments cover just over half of School District of Lancaster’s revenue, leaving the rest up to local taxpayers.

“This system is broken and everyone knows it,” Sorace said. “And while we have a formula for fair funding, it hasn’t been fully implemented, which means another school year will come and go … and nothing will have changed.”

Sturla said if the basic education funding formula enacted in 2016 was distributed in full, Lancaster would get up to $30 million more a year.

Charter reform

Last year, Rau said, the district paid $2.5 million on tuition for underperforming cyber charter schools. Some of that money goes toward “marketing, lobbying and management,” Rau said.

In response to the urban school rallies, Ana Meyers, executive director for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said in a statement that blaming charter schools for school districts’ budget problems is “misguided.”

“We agree that state lawmakers should reform school funding, especially the gap between wealthy and poor school districts, but taking funding from public charter schools will hurt the families this organization says it wants to help,” she said.

There are several charter school reform bills in the state Legislature. Gov. Tom Wolf proposed charter school reform that he says would save $280 million a year by capping charter school tuition and applying the special education formula used for traditional public schools to charter schools.

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