Last spring, just after schools pivoted to virtual learning, dozens of parents from the School District of Lancaster signed an op-ed calling attention to the plight of our district in light of the pandemic (“Public school funding at risk during pandemic,” April 25 LNP | LancasterOnline).
In February 2020, School District of Lancaster Superintendent Damaris Rau announced that our district was facing a $10 million deficit. Knowing that communities of color would bear the brunt of the pandemic, we feared the impending wreckage. Accordingly, we asked our lawmakers to fund our public schools fairly and adequately.
A year later, our call is more pressing than ever.
As the fog of the pandemic lifts, the wreckage we foresaw is coming into sharp relief. Deep inequity existed in our community long before the pandemic, with vast disparities between our district and other county schools, both public and private.
In March 2020, we watched most schools switch seamlessly to online learning, while our district ensured that the basic needs of its 11,000 students — most notably food and safety — were met. A few weeks later, the district was able to move on to the task of ensuring every child had access to tools for online learning.
This was no small feat. Like all districts in our state with majority Black and Latino populations, our schools have never been adequately funded and therefore, in normal times, basic school supplies can be hard to come by.
Luckily, a local private foundation answered the call for help and provided free Wi-Fi and laptops for all of our students. But our district should not have to rely on the benevolence of strangers for basic needs. This is the General Assembly’s job and it has woefully dropped the ball for years.
In 2007, then-Gov. Ed Rendell determined that an additional $4.4 billion was required for schools to meet the state’s educational standards for all students. He set a target for increasing educational funding by $2.4 billion.
In 2011, upon taking office, then-Gov. Tom Corbett immediately slashed education spending by $851 million, while simultaneously increasing privatization efforts via tax credits for private school tuition, voucher programs and private takeovers of underfunded schools.
Districts like ours suffered the consequences, with local taxpayers shouldering the shortfalls. The resulting overreliance on local property taxes to fund schools places an enormous burden on cities like Lancaster, where about 90% of the school district’s families live at or below the poverty level.
We have no wiggle room to raise more money for our students, and almost 30% of our city’s properties are tax-exempt. This immoral system is bankrupting our city’s residents and, more importantly, the future of our community’s children.
We have the tools to right these historical wrongs. In 2016, for instance, a fair funding formula was created by a bipartisan group of lawmakers and enacted to provide redress for the startling disparities between districts.
The formula used an equity-minded framework, taking into account a district’s size, poverty level, ability to raise local revenue and the actual needs of its students.
Unfortunately, the formula only applied to new money allocated by the state. As a result, just 11% of our state’s education dollars are distributed equitably; the rest is distributed to districts using an outdated formula based on data from decades ago.
In February, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a just and visionary budget for education. The proposal includes applying the fair funding formula to all existing basic education monies and increasing the education budget so that districts that have benefited from inequitable funding structures for decades do not lose a significant amount. The proposal also includes much-needed reform for charter school funding and setting parameters around our state’s harmful educational tax credit structures.
Ensuring all children receive an excellent education should not be a partisan issue and it should not be a zero-sum game. All children in every district across the commonwealth should have an equal shot at succeeding in life.
Indeed, it’s a value enshrined in our state constitution. We implore our local state legislators to fully support Gov. Wolf’s proposal to fairly and adequately fund all schools in our state and to provide public schools the full support they morally and legally deserve.
This op-ed is co-signed by Martha E. Reeves, Marianne Smith, Suzanna Stoltzfus, Laura Shelton, Megan Snell, Sarah Nassau, Hagai Nassau, Jaime Blair, Stephanie McNulty, Jorge Mena-Ali, Jeremy Moss, Guillaume de Syon, Maria Mitchell, Jennifer V. Eaton, Matthew Krotzer, Emma Eck, Benjamin Kreider, Bryan Stinchfield, Tim Shenk, Christine Kaufman, Tracy Stinchfield, Katie Chaffinch, Melissa Gehler, Amy Ruffo, Jamie Showers, Diana Bieber Locke, Anita Pilkerton-Plumb, Hylon Plumb, William Mattar, Felisa Miller, Lisa Griffin, Jenny Brant, Doug Brant, Libby Modern, John Modern, Giovanna Faleschini Lerner, Scott Lerner, Heidi Leitzke, Kris Sherer, Daniel Quishpe, Carrie Ruggiero, Matthew Schousen, Jennifer Conley, Pat Daugherty, Holly White, Timothy White, Lauren Finn, Amy Lovell, Chatarina Eskered, Michael Kroll, Candace Roper (School District of Lancaster Board of Directors, 2011-2019), Josh Wigotow, Aileen Wigotow, Bianca Cordova, Leigh Moss, Jeffrey Eaton, Danny Lovell, Erin Bavington, Carol Parrish McCoy, Lauren Engle, Robert Engle, Amanda Shoff, Samantha Sweigert, Jasmyne King and Ben Snell, M.D.
Susan Knoll is a Lancaster city resident.