In February, just before the COVID-19 crisis rendered “normal” life obsolete, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a 2020-21 state budget that included excellent news for public school students. The proposed budget revealed a long-overdue $100 million increase in basic education funding, as well as an additional $25 million for special education funding. Wolf also vowed to stay the course on much-needed charter school funding reforms to save school districts $280 million.
The steps taken by Wolf since he was first elected have helped begin to fix Pennsylvania’s broken school funding system. The state provides just 38% of K-12 funding, which creates heavy reliance on property taxes to fund education. This leaves the school districts that have a majority of students in poverty with a vastly unfair share of the funding burden.
By proposing funding increases for Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable schools in his most recent budget, Wolf was continuing on a path toward their revival.
But now, in our current health crisis, many public school advocates worry that the gains made will be moot, and that many legislators will look at the money set aside for public education as up for grabs. Now more than ever, it’s imperative for our governor and legislators to avoid that scenario at all costs.
One of the most evident lessons the COVID-19 crisis has been teaching us is the vital role that public schools play in our communities — especially those with a high level of students who live in poverty — and how they serve as lifelines for thousands of society’s most vulnerable children. Another lesson that has been laid bare is that we have vast, and unacceptable, inequities in our society between the haves and the have-nots, especially when it comes to education.
Within a day or two of schools closing, most private and smaller, wealthier school districts had moved their classes online, seemingly without missing a beat. Meanwhile, our district, the School District of Lancaster, spent the first two weeks just trying to figure out how to keep most of its kids fed. Our school district is only now, weeks into this crisis, beginning to figure out a plan for how to provide some semblance of education to all of its students, understanding that not all children have the luxury of immediate access to technology and optimal learning environments.
It should come as no surprise when we find, as the dust begins to settle, that those who have been hardest hit by the pandemic are the ones who were already the most disenfranchised in our society before its arrival: people working low-paid, blue-collar jobs (oftentimes several) with no health care benefits. The upcoming post-pandemic stress of trying to feed a family, while paying rent and keeping a roof overhead, will be especially acute for the families that make up much of School District of Lancaster.
In the future, as in the past, public education will play a critical role of acting as a great equalizer, ensuring that the playing field is somewhat level for the most vulnerable of our children. For many of them, schools will be their sole source of stability.
We demand that Gov. Wolf and state legislators do everything within their power to maintain their commitment to strengthen our public schools.
Susan Knoll is a Lancaster city resident.
This op-ed was co-signed by these parents within the School District of Lancaster: Megan Snell, Erik Anderson, Rachel Anderson-Rabern, John Modern, Elizabeth Modern, Dan Ardia, Christian Kopchak, Jenny Schulder Brant, Spike Brant, Michelle Gherardi, Amy Ruffo, Howard Montgomery, Amy Lovell, Daniel Lovell, Enrique Sotomayor, Mary Sotomayor, Lauren Finn, Leigh Moss, Jeremy Moss, Candace Roper, Heather Smith, Kelly McIntyre, Beverly Fornoff, Anita Pilkerton-Plumb, Jessica Comp-Lewis, Laura Kanagy, Carmalena Stoltzfus Iyengar, Raj Iyengar, Amy Mees, Susan Dodge, Laura Shelton, Chatarina Eskered, Srirupa Dasgupta, Marianne Smith, Maria Mitchell, Guillaume de Syon, Todd DeKay, Trella Dubetz, Meghan Oakley-Henning, Stephanie McNulty, Pablo Jenik, Candy Graupera, Lauren Engle, Meagan Howell-Brogan, Sara Barton, Maya Greenshpan, Marco Di Giulio, Liza Stover, Kayla Roberts, Lawrence Lerner, Lisa Griffin, Jaime Blair, Jorge Mena-Ali, Heidi Leitzke, Julie Peachey, Margaret High, Kris Sherer, Lucy Deren, Melissa Gehler, Beverly and Keith Wilson, Lesley Colabucci, Jodi Hillard, Felisa Miller, William Matta, Sarah Geissinger, Kirsten Hoover, Eric Hoover, Kari Stanley, Mara Clements, Shane Clements, Tom Vafias, Auria Vafias, Danielle Painton, Gabriel Painton, Hiram Martinez, Deborah Martinez, Jennifer Starliper, and Magdalen Hess.