Insufficient school funding is not just an urban or suburban problem; it is a state problem. That is the main takeaway from a report on rural schools recently released by Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children (PPC).
The report, "Spending Impact on Student Achievement: A Rural Perspective," found that of Pennsylvania’s 260 rural school districts, 202 are not receiving their fair share of state funding, forcing districts to either spend less and risk student achievement or increase local taxes.
In turn, 158 rural districts spend below the amount needed to properly educate students – or the “adequacy target.” When rural school districts do not reach that adequacy target, the underspending is a direct result of inadequate state support. That lack of support negatively affects student achievement.
Like urban school districts and those in less affluent suburbs, many rural schools educate significant numbers of children living in poverty. Their students live in economically disadvantaged communities that are confronting serious social challenges like the growing opioid problem. These rural schools must deal with smaller student populations across larger and sparsely populated areas that present higher transportation costs and that limit the ability to save money through economies of scale. Rural school districts frequently lack the local tax base to raise sufficient funds through property taxes. That is a significant problem since the state shoulders only 37 percent of the cost of K-12 education, ranking it 46th in the country in state share.
This gap in resources is affecting student outcomes. More than one-third of 3rd grade students attending rural school districts scored below proficient on the English Language Arts state assessment, and two-thirds of students attending rural districts scored below proficient on the 8th grade Mathematics state assessment. In the 81 rural school districts spending 10 percent or more below the adequacy target, students are performing worse than the rural average.
West Perry School District's student achievement is impacted similarly to many underfunded rural districts with 36% of students not reaching proficiency on the 3rd grade English Language Arts PSSA and nearly 75% were not proficient on the 8th grade Math PSSA. Joan Benso, President & CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children and chair of the Campaign for Fair Funding and Dr. Ed Albert, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools have stated, “that the state is underfunding West Perry School District by more than $4.4 million annually.”
Assessment scores are not the only measure of student achievement, but these results should raise concern for community members and state policymakers.
Rural school officials do their best despite difficult fiscal circumstances to support qualified teachers and provide up-to-date textbooks, small class sizes and other supports that help students achieve. In the best of circumstances, classrooms are equipped with tools that can enhance learning to help them compete in the technology-driven society we live in. Teachers are the most important resource in public education. Unfortunately, West Perry School District was forced to reduce their teaching staff by 22.5 positions during the 2016-2017 budget process in order to maintain a reasonable budget.
Last year policymakers took an important first step in addressing the existing funding disparities among school districts by permanently adopting a fair funding formula based on the recommendations of the bipartisan Basic Education Funding Commission (BEFC). The student-driven formula directs new state funds to local school districts based on objective factors including enrollment, poverty, number of English Language Learners and charter school attendance. It also addresses district size, sparsity, wealth and local tax effort – factors that reflect student and community needs unique to rural school districts.
However, the fact remains that despite passage of the new formula and more than $400 million in state funding increases over the last two fiscal years, funding for public education remains inadequate in many school districts.
With state budget negotiations underway, our hope is for policymakers to consider the widespread, significant impact that underfunding public education has on all students and their achievement. The increase of $100 million for public schools in Governor Wolf’s proposed 2017-18 budget is an important investment in a difficult budget year. However, we need significant and sustained funding increases over several years, run through the fair funding formula to ensure that all students – whether they travel to school on city streets or country roads - have the resources needed to succeed.
The meaning of the Holiday Season varies from culture to culture, family to family, and person to person. It is influenced by our past experiences and what we determine to be important. It can even be impacted by what is happening in our complex lives both personally and professionally.
The school setting represents many of the possible perceptions for the holidays. The elementary students are excited about everything: wearing antlers and Santa hats, painting their noses red, sitting on Santa’s lap and getting gifts. The secondary students are less excited about those “elementary” things and more excited about being off school, getting gifts, and “hanging out” with family and friends. The adults are ready for it all to be over. Yes, there is excitement but the energy and time to ensure that family needs are addressed can be exhausting.
Gatherings of family and friends sharing food, stories and laughs are an integral part of the holidays. There are thoughts of loved ones, especially those that aren’t with us. It is also a time to be thankful for what we have been given and the many blessings that we enjoy.
As superintendent, I started reflecting on what is important, a “wish list” of sorts, for all of our students, regardless of age, as we engage in traditional holiday activities and await the coming of 2017. It may not seem like a normal “superintendent” activity but my thoughts came as a result of observations of classrooms and after-school activities. Below you will see my “wish list” for our students as we enjoy the upcoming season and prepare for 2017:
The absence of these five attributes is often at the root of many societal issues. We have recently witnessed people destroying property, burning cars and buildings, using divisive rhetoric, physically assaulting others, killing police officers and disrespecting our country’s history and processes. I don’t believe they have internalized or developed the concepts on the wish list!
Obviously, the development of an individual is a complex process and has a profound impact on the “collective” social behavior of the human race. As we celebrate Christmas, New Years and other holidays, I hope that our students develop the self-confidence and desire to learn, which provides them with hope for the future and peace of mind, resulting in a healthy respect and love for themselves and others.
Public Education and Elections
The November election results will have a profound impact on public education. Unfortunately, we can’t trust what is being said by our political leaders because they have proven that their decisions are influenced by special interest groups. Money is the substitute for common sense. You may wonder why I would make such a bold statement, well, let me give you a few facts to ponder:
Soon there will be new faces in Harrisburg and Washington DC. We need to make sure that our students and future generations are allowed to attend their local public schools. This can only happen if you advocate for West Perry by demanding that our tax dollars support our schools and not the special interests of the minority and by holding our legislators accountable to fund public education to an appropriate level, a level that meets our students’ needs. Inform them that owing over 1.2 million dollars, PlanCon reimbursement, to West Perry School District is unacceptable. A reasonable approach would be for our political leaders to pay their bills and return public education back to local control.
Fair Funding for Public Education and West Perry School District
Dear Dr. Michael O’Brien,
Yesterday (9/13/2016), the PA Supreme Court heard oral arguments for the school funding lawsuit. The courtroom was packed with parents, advocates, faith leaders, school and elected officials, and community members from throughout the Commonwealth. Supporters who believe Pennsylvania’s children should have their day in court filled the overflow room and poured out into the hallway.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs urged the PA Supreme Court to allow the case to go to full trial. They urged the court to authorize judicial review of the state’s failure to uphold the Education Clause and Equal Protection provisions in the PA Constitution and address the inadequacy and inequity in our school funding system.
Citing evidence of underfunding and the gross inequities that exist among school districts, an attorney for the plaintiffs made a passionate, powerful, well-reasoned argument that the current system violates the Education Clause in the PA Constitution that mandates that the state legislature “support and maintain” a “thorough and efficient system of public education.” He argued that the case should go to full trial so that the plaintiffs have an opportunity to prove their case.
Attorneys for the state argued that the court should play no role in enforcing the Education Clause in the PA Constitution. They argued that the legislature must simply set up a “system” of education, that any system that keeps the doors of schools open is sufficient, and that “no individual child has any specific right to an education at all.”
A particularly memorable moment occurred after Justice David Wecht asked an attorney for the state a question along the lines of: What if the legislature decides that a system is acceptable where one school district had a Cadillac system while another had no books or desks?
The attorney for the state responded, “I can’t imagine that will come about.” The audience reacted to this statement with palpable, stunned disbelief that rippled throughout the courtroom.
After the hearing, we were honored to have been invited to speak at a large rally outside Philadelphia City Hall and made these comments about the widespread, deep deprivation in our public schools and the need for court intervention.
Now we wait.
We don’t know when the Supreme Court will make its decision. What we do know, however, is that attorneys and staff at the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center have done extraordinary work on behalf of our children. They have put together a powerful case that demonstrates that our state legislature is violating the PA Constitution. The plaintiffs in this case deserve their day in court so that they can share their stories and prove the harm that this broken, unconstitutional system is inflicting on PA’s children.
We will make sure to let you know when the court reaches a decision. Thank you for your continued support of public education in PA.
Susan Spicka, Executive Director, Education Voters of PA
The path of a child’s education is defined by grade levels, school years and transitions between buildings. Looking into this concept you will find that some students will be in the same building as last year but move to the next grade down the hall or to a different floor. Some will define their grade level by a noun, like junior or senior, some will enter school for the first time as a Pre-K or kindergarten students, while other groups will be moving to the middle school as 6th grade students or the high school as freshmen, if you prefer 9th grade.
So it really isn’t just another year. No, it is much more than that: it can be the first day of a 13 year journey, the first day of the last 180 days for seniors or for most of our students, it will be somewhere between K and 12th grade. Each year we expect our students to grow and develop. Parents and school staff evaluate academic achievement, mold behavior and observe social changes. It is also special for parents and guardians as they put their prized possessions on the bus for the first time, send them off to the middle school or realize that their “little” one is entering high school. Throughout each year, as we watch every step they take, parents wonder with pride about the future. What will my son or daughter grow up to become? What will they do? Who will they hang out with? What will the teacher or principal be like? All those questions are important and sometimes scary. Together we can join forces to make this year a success. I encourage parents and guardians to attend the back to school activities, attend school events and join us at our Board meetings. Important information will be shared that is specific to your child’s building, grade level and class. Board meetings provide valuable information about state and federal law, mandates from the Pa Department of Education, district initiatives and many other topics.
In summary, it really is not just “another year.” It is a very important year in the growth and development of your child. Please come to meet our fantastic teachers and administrators. Together we can ensure that your child will have an outstanding year!
The West Perry School District has the privilege of educating the youth of our district. We strive to ensure that students are prepared for post-secondary careers. Some of our students chose to enter the workforce, join the military or attend two-year trade and technical schools, while others elect to pursue a four-year college degree. Public education funding has been, and will continue to be, a concern as we provide the resources needed to educate our students. The cost of educating children encompasses the responsibility to provide appropriate facilities and many services: bussing, mandated curriculum, food service, special education, gifted education, vocational education, elective courses and core courses and health services. The unfunded mandates (demands put on districts without any funding sources) and legislative changes have severely impacted the deficits that are impacting most districts across Pennsylvania. West Perry’s pension costs have risen over 3 million dollars and cyber-charter school (school choice law) over 1.3 million dollars. These are just two of the factors that have caused the 3.1 million dollar budget deficit for 2016-2017. The current deficit was preceded by a 2.2 million dollar deficit for 2015-2016. Additionally, the state has not paid 600,000 dollars, owed to the district for PlanCon reimbursement. If the state defaults, the deficit for next year will rise to 3.7 million dollars.
The West Perry Board of Education and I spent over a hundred hours discussing options that would bring our expenses closer to expenditures. Understanding that the last two budgets resulted in a combined 5.3 million dollar deficit, (closer to 6 million without the PlanCon funds), we collectively agreed that it was time to investigate strategies that would reach some level of financial sustainability for the district. Legislators would like you to believe that school districts have excessive amounts of “hidden” money in fund balance. Our district currently has under 9 million in reserve, 22.8% of our yearly operating budget. Those accounts are critical to absorbing unexpected costs: 10-months without a state budget, facility repairs and upgrades, machinery, boilers, preventative maintenance, upkeep of fields, etc. In July 2015, our district submitted an application for PlanCon funds, from the state, to upgrade Carroll Elementary and West Perry High School. The cost for these upgrades could exceed 50 million dollars.
School districts are funded by three basic sources: local, state and federal. Pennsylvania consistently ranks near the bottom, compared to other states, in financial support for public education. Unfortunately, many political leaders feel that public education is adequate funded. The legislators and Governor Wolf delayed school funding (2015-2016) for almost 10 months and it appears likely that this year (2016-2017) will have similar issues, which will negatively impact public schools in the future. There is little faith that the state will fund public education to meet the needs of our students or pay for the mandates that they legislate.
The West Perry Board of Education was faced with two unacceptable choices: spending additional fund balance (approximately 50%) or reducing expenditures and raising taxes. Continuing to balance the budget through the use of fund balance would have quickly depleted those accounts by June 2018. Every member of the board supported reducing costs to get as close as possible to a balanced budget. The decision was followed by months of agonizing analysis of information and data points. The concepts of reducing staff (approximately 2 million dollars) and raising taxes were not easy decisions but they had to be made to avoid depleting fund balance, which could result in our district being classified as a financially distressed district. The reductions, passed by the Board on June 13, 2016, combined with increased taxes over the next several years will give our district a chance to reach financial sustainability by 2020-2021. The prediction of financial sustainability does not factor in any “unexpected” costs that the legislature will place upon public schools moving forward.
It is undeniable that this budget season has caused some concern within our community. There are differing opinions about what should or should not have been done. The past few months have been difficult and challenging, but our time, energy and resources must focus on the future. We must shift our collective efforts in preparing to welcome back 2466 students on August 29, 2016.