Pennsylvania teachers are constantly worrying about money

By Kaitlin McCann

Working in a low-wealth school district means having to ask where the money will come from, constantly. You wonder if your building will ever be repaired and safe. You wonder how your school will pay for arts and athletics equipment and facilities, copy paper and the many necessary classroom supplies. You wonder about funding for student programming like field trips, incentives, awards and assemblies.

As a special education teacher of life skills students, I wonder where the funding is for any kind of curricular material for my students with complex needs. School staff members in grossly underfunded schools are constantly fundraising, seeking donations and using money out of their own pocket to provide meaningful student opportunities.

State leaders often talk about public schools in poor areas as “failing,” but the reality is that our public leaders are failing our schools. When adequately-funded districts can spend upwards of $10,000 more per pupil than the poorest districts, student opportunity is inequitable. And, as the Commonwealth Court ruled last year, this system of haves and have-nots is unconstitutional.

The 100 poorest schools, which include urban, rural and suburban districts in all regions of the state, serve a majority of the state’s students of color and students in poverty, as well as over one-third of students with disabilities and English learners.

From Panther Valley to Pottstown, from Wilkes Barre to Wilkinsburg, our most disadvantaged students who need the most are getting the least. In the School District of Philadelphia, where I teach, our total adequacy gap is $1.4 billion – over $7,000 per student. By allowing a 33% funding gap between the wealthiest and poorest districts, Pennsylvania legislators have sent a clear message that the safety, success and opportunity of children, especially our most vulnerable children, is not a priority.

Of the 500 districts across the commonwealth, 416 were found to have inadequate resources to meet student needs, with a total statewide adequacy gap of $5.1 billion. Closing this adequacy gap isn’t optional for legislators; it is the state’s constitutional obligation.

All students, regardless of zip code, should have access to a fully-funded school where they are provided an opportunity to achieve their potential, have their individual needs met, and graduate fully equipped for post-secondary success.

This month, Pennsylvania legislators have the opportunity to be a part of history, to meet this moment by choosing to invest in the futures of children. Governor Shapiro proposed a state budget for next year that would invest over $1 billion into our public schools, in line with the recommendations of the Basic Education Funding Commission.

HB 2370, which passed in the House earlier this month, proposes to permanently fix our unconstitutional school funding system by not only committing to the governor’s one-year spending plan but also creating a seven-year plan to bring all 500 school districts up to an adequate level of spending based on need. This investment could change the trajectory of students’ lives, especially those in grossly underfunded schools like mine.

It is cynical and irresponsible to say that the public school system is broken and therefore does not deserve more money, especially as an excuse for legislators to avoid their constitutional obligation. It is irrefutable that districts with adequate funding are able to offer more support, choice and opportunity with clear college and career pathways. Adequately funded districts don’t have to make impossible decisions like whether to spend limited resources on curricular materials or personnel, or whether to opt for a dean versus an art teacher. Having the opportunity to take art, foreign language, music, home economics and technology should be compulsory, not a luxury.

The Commonwealth Court school funding lawsuit made clear that the evidence supports that money matters in education, and students in well-funded schools do better than similar students in poorly-funded schools. And a new study from the University of Pennsylvania projects that HB 2370 would more than pay for itself over time as increased funding led to increased student achievement, more equitable teacher staffing, and higher earnings and tax revenues for public school graduates.

HB 2370, which would close the $5.1 billion adequacy gap over seven years,is a game-changer for the students and families of Pennsylvania. It’s also the only serious plan on the table to address the school funding lawsuit. I should not have to wonder when there will be money to have working bathrooms, proper heating and cooling, or safe classrooms free of flaking lead paint and exposed asbestos. I should not have to spend thousands of my own dollars every year to compensate for the state’s negligence.

The General Assembly has a constitutional responsibility to equitably fund public school districts across the commonwealth. Passing Governor Shapiro’s proposal for increased funding and HB 2370 would be transformational. We have never seen what can happen when all Pennsylvania schools have adequate funding to allow students like mine to thrive.

Kaitlin McCann teaches special education at Strawberry Mansion High School in the School District of Philadelphia. She is a 2023-2024 Teach Plus PA Policy Fellow.

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By Kaitlin McCannWorking in a low-wealth school district means having to ask where the money will co…